Gigs Aplenty: Improv Comedy Shows to Watch at Leicester Comedy Festival

Leicester Comedy Festival has arrived, crashing into 2024 will all the force of a rhino clutching a calendar shouting the time has come! It’s all cool stuff:

Unspeakable Acts

Wednesday 14 February, 7.30pm @ East Street Lanes

This is such a lot of fun to be in – we take a page from a screenplay and then with no further context, invent the story that must surely follow it. Very often half the cast has never seen the film, so there’s little risk of coming remotely close to retelling it accurately.

A cinematic folly! A real movie script reinvented as an absurd, unfaithful comedy spectacle. The improv show that starts with a real Hollywood screenplay before diverging wildly into a whole new story. The audience selects the film you most want to see mutilated and abandoned, and the team – who may never have even heard of it – will spin the tale. Absurd, unfaithful, funny and endlessly inventive, these are the stories we’ll never see on screen.

Book your tickets here:

This show is followed by the excellent double-bill of Comic Harmonic & Flower Freedom at 9pm – see both!


This is what one of our shows has been like before… it’s Fight Club!

It’s A Trap! The Improvised Star Wars Show

Friday 16 February, 7.30pm @ Sue Townsend Theatre

It’s hard to figure out which of the shows I’m involved in is my favourite, and I suppose like children they’re all my favourite… But creating a new Star Wars story is pretty high up there. Quite silly, but very good fun.

Book now:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

It’s A Trap! tells untold tales from the Star Wars universe, packed with Jedi, jokes and Jawas. A handful of audience suggestions creates a unique episode before your eyes – complementing and breaking the canon in unexpected and ingenious ways! Truly geeky, hilarious entertainment – this IS the show you’re looking for.

Nominated for Best Improv Show at Leicester Comedy Festival 2022

This show is improvised and we do not know what content will be created, we aim for the show to be 12A but we cannot guarantee that, sometimes the force works in mysterious (and rude) ways.

This one was chaos, with a small team and a (friendly) twat in the audience:

Mockbusters & Play It Again Double-Bill

Wednesday 21 February, 6.00pm at East Street Lanes

I’ve always loved short-form improv – the fun and silly games as seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and a million shows. We’re doing them as if it were a gameshow – scoring, winners, losers, and all of that good stuff. We’re followed by the exquisite improvised lounge singing duo Play It Again (you may recognise both of them from It’s A Trap!), and the show is followed by another fun double-bill, Enter Player 2 & Date Night at 7.30pm, finishing off with the excellent The Vox Pops at 9pm.

You can see all three shows for the price of two!

Or just the Mockbusters & Play It Again if you’re kinda busy:

Play It Again are immortal lounge performers, cursed to provide light entertainment forever! Give them your sultry suggestions, they’ll give you beautiful ballads and mesmerising musical pieces. Laugh and sing along as these eternal entertainers play it again, and again, and again…

Mockbusters are here to entertain you with a fun, fast paced improv gameshow. Come along and gift them with your presence, suggestions and help with scoring. Prepare to be both entertained by their enthusiasm and frustrated by their lack of knowledge.

Ersatz Natterjack: Spontaneous Storytelling Man-Machine

Friday 24 February, 8.30pm at Knight & Garter

This one’s just me! This is my first full-length solo storytelling show, and I’d love it if you came to watch me spin a story out of nothing but the air and a handful of words provided by the audience. For an hour!

Get your ticket here:

High-energy wordsmithing, spinning one-off stories inspired by the audience

One man and two books create an impossible story. With the support of the audience’s randomly selected words and phrases, enjoy a brand-new storytelling adventure inspired by the audience’s chosen genre. High energy vocabulary spinning like a human AI ingesting words and spitting out something never heard before.

It might be something like this…


Visit to Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023

Although this is largely about going up to the Fringe this year, there’s a typically self-indulgent splooge of mithering first which you may wish to skip straight to the weekend or indeed just to the shows😊… though the rest of it is also quite long since I have awful autobiographical memory and simply won’t remember this in a month’s time. Also, I’m dreadful at remembering to take photos, so what you see is what you get…

What the Fuck Are Feelings Anyway

I have been neglecting my self-reflection type diary entries for a while now. It’s a side effect of feeling basically fine – why bother reflecting on being OK?! It is entirely backwards, yet that’s kind of the way our minds work, or at least mine does. This August I hit 45, which is in no way a milestone but feels like a BIG number, especially when combined with a genuinely significant 25 years spent with my other half (better, more respected half etc). Not that they add up meaningfully to 70, but a quarter century spent with someone else without killing them, and in fact being rather fond of them is something of an achievement; certainly my parents have yet to manage such a dramatic volume of days in relationships, and they are of course the providers of my primary datasets for such comparisons, however relatively meaningless.

It’s been a very busy couple of months – returning to sleeping tablets, increasing volumes of work, lots of improv shows (hurray for It’s A Trap! The Improvised Star Wars Show on mini tour this year: Leicester, Brighton, Bath, Nottingham Playhouse – the last a particular delight, for I am rarely given the role of Darth Sindy and asked to invade Barbie World [along with my Sith pal Darth Sylvanian Families we had a fine old time]!) and a little birthday party. I am very bad at looking forwards to things. I just… don’t. There are events and stuff which I know I will enjoy at the time, but I don’t get a thrill of anticipation other than in seeing people I love. They can be hard afterwards, especially after the buzz of being on stage as all that excitement dissipates into fading memories and the relentless drive on time dragging me forward to whatever the next thing is.

However, I committed a little while ago to visiting the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year with Matt McGuinness from our We Are What We Overcome podcast, and the proposed dates lined up with a couple of other significant things like my 45th birthday, our 25th anniversary two days before (which was also the first time I went to the Fringe, with our Nottingham University New Theatre show The Robin Hood Revue). So – worthwhile, and all good things to remember and celebrate, yet still so fucking hard to look forward to. I was doing OK, with a short week of work to cram in a bunch of stuff, and it all fell sideways quite abruptly. On the last day of each month, my work team assemble to play board and card games for a few hours. We all work at home, I have never once missed being in an office, and this is a fun way for us to reconnect, socialise and remember that we actually do like other people and find each other amusing. It was good! And yet afterwards, or by the next day at least I could feel myself falling sideways into the kind of grim despairing hollowness that I’ve been blissfully free of for months. It’s hard to characterise, but it’s a total emptiness where emotions aren’t even relevant and all I want is to cease to exist. Ideally, to never have existed, to just blink out and leave no trace behind. It’s not pleasant, and in those moments – if I can bring myself to act at all – I just want to feel something: laughter, warmth, pain – they’re all equally suitable. It’s a high risk time for self-harm, because pushing a needle all the way through my hand will feel just as intense and awakening as being happy, and is waaaay easier to achieve. I mean, I have needles, but happiness is caused by other things and people, and somehow they are just too far away. Having both a significant amount of work to get through and desiring to not be utterly miserable and hateful during a few days away over significant anniversaries I just couldn’t afford to be so wrecked, disinterested and empty. I chose the somewhat unorthodox option of a psilocybin microdose. As ever, it’s virtually impossible to separate out the factors that influence my mental health, but since I rarely experience a crash that lasts only a single day, I think it did pull me back up the slope and I could say goodbye to Shadow Me for a little while.

I feel as I have two proper states: engaged, focused and interested in whatever I’m doing (whether it’s work, talking, improv, reading, watching a film, just being) and the hollow absence of all of those things. I remain unconvinced that I experience proper emotions of happiness, sadness and the rest – they feel as if they’re just aspects of engagement, the appropriate hormonal and chemical responses to whatever it is that I’m engaged in. Their absence is just a side effect of disengagement and disinterest in everything. That’s the time for what I think of as Shadow Me, which is me without love and interest and attention to the world. I’m rarely bored, and Shadow Me is not a state of boredom or proper disinterest. It’s not like I’m suddenly bored by being alive, but it no longer matters and has no value – worse, my sheer existence only devalues everyone else’s and it’s like I’m both near and am a black hole, sucking the life out of everything and collapsing in on myself, my material self is lost.

But, after a fucking grim day and a half, Shadow Me was banished and I was sort of ready to at last give a fragment of thought to a fairly expensive holiday weekend – we should probably do something in it…

Edinburgh Fringe 2023

Last year I went up for podcast purposes, but I was on my own and as it turned out not really ready to do things on my own; the crowds filled me with alienation and rage and I although I got some good things done really I should not have gone. This year Marilyn and I went up together. Ostensibly this was to do a bunch of mental health events with We Are What We Overcome (WAWWO), notably joining the Blue Balls group for a swim in the sea. But it was a good opportunity for a little holiday since twenty-five years ago M and I became inseparable while rehearsing for a show at the Fringe, directed, co-written and performed by us and a host of brilliant people. I met a girl and then immediately moved in with her… For some, that might not have gone well.

Friday 4 August

I’m pretty sure the train journey is getting shorter – a mere four and a half hours from Beeston to Edinburgh and forty-five minutes of that is a change between the two Newark train stations. Smooth, easy and full of reading. Finished Bullet Train, which is fun, but slightly less fun than the film version and continued grinding through The Rise and Reign of the Mammals which continues to be excellent, but still slow-going.

This time our digs were out in Holyrood (a million miles closer than last year’s trudge) in student flats. Nice enough being on Abbeyhill, but the flat was absolutely roasting. Sure, you can open a window but then the traffic and railway are deafening. We nicked a big air con unit from a corridor, but that was as loud as the traffic… Comfortable enough for a couple of days but it made me think of both the Bibby Stockholm prison barge and how awful and oppressive it would be to live there for a whole year. Oh, and no kettle in the communal kitchen: what the actual fuck? Who wants to superheat a mug in a microwave to get a cup of tea? Truly baffling.

We ditched our bags and quick-timed it up through a series of residential estates to see the utterly sublime Shamilton by Baby Wants Candy in Studio One @ Assembly George Square Studios. Thank goodness no Fringe show (other than Ben’s) ever starts on time. We adore Baby Wants Candy – we shared a venue with them waaaay back in 1998 when they came to the Fringe for the first time while we were doing The Robin Hood Revue and we saw their show many times. As such, they hold a very special place in our hearts. This is an utterly new cast, doing their fun second show, a parody of the hiphop musical Hamilton. I have not seen Hamilton, but I’m at least aware of most of the songs and the story. The team wanted a historical character and they received “Mickey Mouse”. It was typically brilliant and hilarious, filled with outrageous musical numbers and meticulously organised improvised chaos. I really admire the amount of fun they evidently have on stage and I died with laughter throughout. Afterwards we had a brief chat with Chris Grace (who we’ve been enjoying in Superstore and most recently Stumptown), just to say how much we loved the show and to mention we’d shared a venue with BwC years ago. All very nice, what a lovely and hilarious man.

After that we met up with Matt and Neil (of WAWWO) and the poet and improviser Ben Macpherson (hi, Ben) at Bar Fifty which was handy for discovering that it was the same venue that our mates Stags and Josie were using for Spontadeity, and bumped into Benny Shakes and Mark Nicholas, both funny and splendid people. This provided both mostly-OK food, a nice break and good nonsense before heading off to catch Showstopper! The Improvised Musical at the Pleasance Grand. They’ve been around for years and I’ve never gotten around to seeing their show, even though I know a couple of folks in the cast. It’s an impressive and slickly created musical featuring fantastic singers, but for me it’s perhaps too slick and shiny and somehow lacks a component of joy and surprise that I deeply relish in improvised performances. A rightfully lauded and award-winning show for sure, but it’s not for me.

Thence to further drinks with Benny & co in the Pleasance Courtyard where we struggled to locate straws and I remembered how shit drinks out of plastic glasses are. Whiskey loses a lot. But that was all rather wonderful and fun. We left, promising to catch Benny’s show at ten thirty the next morning, and thus to meet up with the WAWWO boys for breakfast and figuring out how to record a podcast while swimming the next day.

Saturday 5 August

Saturday was my birthday, and I’d brought up a heap of birthday cards to open (which I did when we returned from the middle of town) and feel like it was my birthday, along with a couple of tiny boxes from Marilyn – I suspected necklaces and I was not wrong! I’m rarely away on my birthday since I like not having to do anything (and with an August birthday I never had school and have pointedly refused to ever work on 5 August), so the whole thing was a little discombobulating. I am a creature of routine to a great extent and am easily thrown off.

So – nine-fifteen to meet up and inhale coffee and bacon at Black Medicine Coffee Co, chatter and make some plans. Marilyn sensibly remained a-bed. I was delighted to discover that Benny had given us the wrong time and was actually a full hour later. I could have enjoyed one more hour of sauna sleep on my birthday… It did allow us time to bumble around a few vintage junk shops and more importantly get to Armchair Books where I was thrilled to find a copy of Karel Čapek’s War With The Newts.

After that, I was glad we made it to Benny’s show because Blue Badge Bunch: ReRamped is a wonderful show, putting people and kids in particular in the shoes of different disabilities through a series of daft-seeming challenges like drawing with your feet and buttering bread while being jabbed with big foam fingers. Benny Shakes is upfront about the challenges of cerebral palsy and his guests span disabilities from neurodivergence to profound physical impairment. It’s delightful, silly, funny and is a joyous fountain of empathy. The kids in the audience loved it even more than their parents.

Hustle hustle from there to meet up with Marilyn at McEwan Hall for Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel. I really never have gained any sense of where anything is in Edinburgh – I’m always going from one place to another for a specific reason, at speed, navigating the ghastly thronging crowds and it makes no coherent picture in my head. That can be quite stressful. Still. This was a show I’ve been meaning to see for ages, not least because one of its stars is Charlotte Gittins who we were at Uni of Nottingham New Theatre with, approximately a million years ago. The excellent title of Elizabeth Benn(d)et Like Beckham led to an amazing show about football and freedom and ridiculousness. I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to catch the show because it’s ace. It’s exactly the kind of improv I enjoy which doesn’t take itself too seriously (though never at the expense of breaking the show) in which the performers are confident in messing about with each other and all plainly having the very best fun (and Charlotte was great!). They also had pin badges on the merch table, so we were both thrilled.

Thence to proper birthday activities: the LEGO Store. An immensely happy hour of selecting bricks and minifigures and looking at gorgeous LEGO sets. The most super-adult thing I do. I took two reusable (and thus discounted) pick-a-brick pots up with me and filled em both with lovely gold and useful things while Marilyn assembled a bevy of terrifying horse-headed minifigures.

Alex Leam had been kind enough to add Matt and I to the first in the run of Awkward Question Time. Alas I am no comedian and severely lack a functioning autobiographical memory, so my tales of mere arson and criminality couldn’t compete with terrible dates and kidnapping cats while on acid. Fun to be there and play, especially to a full house! I was also unable to escape Matt encouraging the room to sing me a happy birthday at the end. Bastard/thank you.

I’d been hoping to gather a few friends for a birthday meal but I’d been equivocating about it – where to go, who might be free, but when, and why when they’re all so busy! – which are all symptoms of the malaise I’d been feeling at the beginning of the week. However, with a little gentle coercion I gathered a sampling of friends for a pint at The Mitre on the Royal Mile followed by a burger at Byron Burger on the corner. It was really nice and exactly what I wanted and needed. Alas, I did realise afterwards that I’d missed a bunch of people out! Never mind, I’m most grateful for having a proper mini-celebration of my 45th birthday. That followed by a quick Glenturret at The Waverley (around yet another corner).

And yet the evening was somehow still not over because we needed to catch our friend James’ show Shakespeare Up Late: A Right Royal Visit. I saw James in their other show Shakespeare for Breakfast last year which netted them a deserved award, and was entirely prepared for the ensuing chaos. They shredded Macbeth nicely, making it a contemporary satire with much swearing, joking and silliness. It’s really good fun, and feels like what Shakespeare plays might have felt like originally, before we became obsessed with elevating the wordplay. Loved it. We then drank and chatted for hours in the bar downstairs, which felt like the perfect end to a birthday.

Sunday 6 August

Staying up late on your birthday is great until you have to sleep in a room that slowly steams you and then rise at eight. In theory, this was to be the primary reason for our visit: recording an episode of the podcast while joining in with Edinburgh Blue Balls’ Sunday Service Porty Dip (if you really wanna know I’m fifth from the right, on the front row below). It’s a swim in the sea at Portobello organised as part of the Joshua Nolan Foundation which is a mental health charity in Edinburgh. The weekly dips in the sea are just one of their regular events, this one being for men specifically. Portobello is fucking miles away and we got there far too early through the magic of taxis. I’d been telling Matt he was going to die from the cold for a while now, and had created quite a monster in my own mind too, so was a little trepidatious. Matt, Neil and I assembled on the beach and waited… well, I wandered off to poke through the general sandy beach detritus (shells, seaweed and weird isopods, oh my!) and fawn over the many delightful dogs enjoying the morning. Folks began to arrive and I shook myself out of my natural aversion to chatting with strangers and got on with it. The whole thing is rather lovely – an assemblage of men of all shapes, ages and backgrounds (I reckon I was about in the middle of the age range). There were around forty of us, and you just get changed right there on the beach, pose for a picture (if you want) and then go into the sea together! It was great, and the water was so much warmer than I’d anticipated, so I felt right at home within minutes and happily swam about, though not wanting to put my face in the water – infamously the water around the UK is rather fucked, due to our government of utter wankers and dissolute water services. Swimming about, chatting to strange near-naked men about things and stuff for around twenty minutes was just lovely. The water was a thousand times colder (relatively, adjust for hyperbole) when I was swimming at Scarborough in late October), so the warm up and shivering phase was violent but not too badly extended. I stayed pretty chilly for a few hours and was grateful that I’d packed an extra long-sleeve thermal t-shirt and hoodie instead of my usual shorts and light shirt. They serve excellent coffee and sausage rolls at the Little Green Van just a few feet down the beach, which revives the whole group every week. We finished off our podcast and hurried into a taxi, as I was about to be late for the next show…

…and so very nearly was. This was Marilyn’s high-priority pick: Mog the Forgetful Cat. I’m aware of the children’s books by Judith Kerr, but I don’t recall them featuring heavily when I was little. This is superlative theatre for children: immaculate choreography, lovely songs, sincere, funny and engaging performances throughout, with a very clever and pleasing set. All the audience interaction is done brilliantly and just looking around and seeing even the children who began the show a little frightened become utterly enthralled within minutes was extraordinary. The show takes us through four seasons in the misadventures of Mog and her human family, with lots of emotional moments for the small cast who play multiple roles, and very fun costume and staging. I don’t even know Mog, and am a childless adult, but this is one of the best things I’ve seen this year. It’s not a show that would have leapt out at me, other than from their ubiquitous advertising (but then I believe we have a moral duty to ignore marketing if we can, and I didn’t even open the Fringe guide…) but I’m very glad Marilyn chose it. She has good taste in these things.

From there to the LEGO Store – no, I was not yet finished with bricks! Moar bricks and figs acquired. That was basically on the way back to the flat so I could wash the scum of our beleaguered and polluted seas off my skin and put some proper (fewer) clothes on. It’s a nice walk back past the US Consulate and we had a lovely view over the city and the graveyards as we headed towards Arthur’s Seat. Not too close, but I forgot to mention that the one really good thing about the flat was it’s view of Arthur’s Seat. Splendid. It was wonderful to scrape the filth off and cast a fine layer of sand over every surface before returning to shows. Marilyn at this point presented me with possibly my best birthday cake yet (excepting of course the brutally violent Jaws cake that I apparently wanted when I was eight or nine – I don’t know…), a Tunnock’s Tea Cake impaled by a candle. Precisely the required picker-upper!

Then Marilyn and I headed off for different things, she to The Railway Children, and me to The Full Irish. A bunch of great things about this show: this instance was at 16:10, not 11:00, I was down to perform, and it’s an all-Irish performers show and I am not Irish (I mean, arguably a bit from great-grandparents on both sides being Irish, probably), oh – and it was at Bannerman’s Bar on Cowgate. We spent a fair amount of time in there back in 1998, just drinking and hanging out after our show. Nice to be back! I’m sure I’m misremembering, but I don’t recall it being a rock venue, just a cool pub set in cool caverns. The gig itself was in one of the curious bunkers behind the bar (presumably a railway bridge remnant or something), with the affable Chris O Neill hosting and wrangling the very non-Irish bill. I think only he and one other act were actually from Ireland at all. I freaked em out early on with Captain Pigheart’s Mermaid Adventure which may not have been what anyone was expecting from a stand-up comedy show. It went down pretty well though, and everyone loves shouting “gaargh” regularly. Matt delivered the portion of his live show We Are What We Overcome that deals directly with preparing to kill yourself (cheery!) and it went down very well. It was a fun little gig and nice to get a bunch of laughs in a good but traditional stand-up comedy line-up.

Somehow there was yet more day to come though. I strolled lazily to the Pleasance Courtyard in lots of time but became suddenly confused by the whole courtyard with multiple venues within and around basically called the same thing. It didn’t matter that I’d already been to the actual Venue 33, or next door twice already, there’s just something about how the addresses get listed that made me feel utterly lost for a moment. Like a madman I asked for assistance and plainly seemed like a lunatic, unable to grasp the idea of names. Le sigh. Anyway, found it and Marilyn just barely in time for NewsRevue. I hadn’t really heard of it, but then the live comedy realm doesn’t register much as it perhaps should. I didn’t enjoy it much, though at least some of the audience seemed to be very into it. It’s a satirical current affairs sketch show, or it usually is. Apparently at the Fringe they pretty much do the best bits of the last year, so about half of it felt weirdly irrelevant and the rest wasn’t very good. The performers were certainly digging in, with a couple of good singers, and some nicely choreographed dance numbers. But it felt much more like how you’d portray a mid-1990s university topical sketch show in a mid-1990s university topical sketch show. I found it predictable and kinda hackneyed, some of it just mean-spirited rather than funny, with absolute death silence from the audience for too much of it, especially the radio-style announcement gags. Apparently they’re a big deal and it’s a very well-known show, but I was dozing off, possibly from the early swim. Oh, and when the clumsy horse-human creature from the row in front made a bruisingly dumb effort to climb out of her seat and onto our row.

Oh my god, this was already more than just one day of stuff, especially after a really late night that I woke from often and early, so naturally we headed back off around the corner to join the cast of Spontadeity: Whomst Let the Gods Out?! I get a bit jittery at the prospect of guesting in other people’s stuff – I don’t seek it out but I think about it sometimes – it feels different to doing a pirate story in the middle of a poetry or stand-up thing, makes me anxious and I have not really explored why… maybe I just don’t wanna fuck someone’s show up. But I do like playing with people who I know well, and it was really nice to be asked, so Marilyn and I both performed with our good pals Josie and Stags, who not only run the lovely Chewy Improv in Derby but are also part of the MissImp exec team. I can’t offer any form of useful review, but we had an absolute blast doing vaguely Grecian mythology scenes. I was forced to hold many marshmallows in my gob for making the audience laugh and Marilyn did an absolutely killer scene in the agora explaining who her granddaughter’s real parents were. It’s a fun and audience-engaging shortform improv show on the theme of gods and mythology – let’s make some more! So yeah, that was great and one of my most fun things of the Fringe.

In recognition that it was not just my birthday but also our anniversary we revisited a spot that still felt resonant for us. Twenty-five years of not murdering each other (so many wasted opportunities)! We never really dated, just going from nothing to something while sharing the same room from day four (or something close to that), but while at the Fringe in 1998 we did have a sort-of date meal out at Ciao Roma, an Italian restaurant just around the corner from the venue we shared with them Baby Wants Candy folks – what is now Greenside on Infirmary Street. In the 45 minute window between shows we visited them both, one for a photo and the other for perfect pizza and a photo. I don’t remember the restaurant itself from 1998 but I do remember how I felt, and how it felt to be there, and it felt that way again. A swift pizza was had, and the nice waiter entreated to take a photo despite their incredible busyness.

Thence to Bubble Show for Adults Only 2. I blame Laurie. Gotta see some random stuff right? Well, this was ours. I like bubbles and blowing bubbles, but not as much as these two. Not entirely easy to characterise… this begins as a series of pretty snappy scifi pastiches with wide grins, with rather fit looking young folks (insanely toned good-looking humans) blowing inventive bubbles from a range of objects to them stripped down to very skimpy underwear exhorting a glowing young guy from the front row to snort a line vape-filled bubbles from the very inner reaches of her thigh. All set to a banging 90s techno soundtrack with excellent sampling. They had a bit of a rough time getting some of the bubble tricks to work, but they can both vamp the fuck out of burlesque and it didn’t seem to get them down. There is much grinding, albeit while soaked in washing up liquid, costume changes, impressive contortion, dancing and an excellent and clever shadow puppet segment. Wild, and so very much not for everyone – avoid the front row if you don’t want a possibly dangerous woman to pounce on you with almost zero notice. Some remarkable burlesque clowning in such a chaotic and nuts show. This is absolutely not for everyone, but I was delighted by their utterly unapologetic glee in performing. We who saw it were very divided, but everyone loves bubbles, right? After that grabbed a couple of drinks at Underbelly with noted poet, Ben Macpherson.

Monday 7 August

Some sleep, check out of the tropical hotel. The two kilos of LEGO in my rucksack was worth lugging through town. We knew we’d only have time for one show before hopping on a one o’clock train – neither of us had any desire to fight across town before sitting down for four hours – only one choice: Serious Nonsense (for Terribly Grown-Up People). Before that we sought out some fudge for our excellent neighbours who will have been utterly unrewarded with good cat encounters while caring for our beasts (as it turns out they didn’t see Geiger at all, and Pixie just hissed at them from the top of the stairs), so they more than earned the incredibly weighty box of fudge from Fudge Kitchen. Then we had a quick amble around the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile which is a memory journey for jaded adults and fans of terrifying dolls. I was especially pleased to see a BBC Micro Computer and a random scattering of things that we all had as kids, though devastated (strongly put) that we couldn’t get to the Dolls and Action Figures gallery, but then we might never have left.

Then to our final show with Ben. It’s an hour of smart and funny, cleverly-rhymed and vocabulary-busting poetry aimed at children but entirely ready for adults. Good book too, you should buy one, I’ve bought at least two so far: Kofi. It’s a lovely show and we were pleased to see a good turnout of kids and adults. From there we finally bumped into more people we knew and immediately departed. We had just enough time to buy some important tat like a three-legged haggis metal pun badge, and acquire coffee at the Edinburgh Press Club (exquisite espresso cortado with much entertainment for an unfortunate soul having their first day of work) before fleeing the city.

In Conclusion

What a nice long weekend away! The relative importance of revisiting the Fringe in alignment with our 25th anniversary took on greater and greater significance in my head, and while that all feels like a terribly long time ago, I guess it also is not. Memories lie in places as much as people, so this was a good idea. Birthday fun was fun, but I definitely prefer a super-lazy birthday at home. It would have been less good without such lovely people. I’m very grateful to Matt and Marilyn for booking almost all these events in, plainly I was in too great a shamble state to properly conceive of these few days before we actually got to them – beyond the basics of booking accommodation and travel, at least. I do fear over-commitment because I know it really messes me up, but the alternative of under-arranging things isn’t great either. In the end this was probably the perfect mix of shows to see without too much running between them, and plenty of time chatting with friends. It was fun to be able to perform at the Fringe without putting any hard work in too, so thanks all!

Edinburgh Fringe Shows We Saw

Shamilton! The Improvised Hip Hop Musical
Venue 17 Assembly George Square Studios, 17:20, till 27 August

A brilliantly witty and wild improvised musical parody of Hamilton, incredibly funny and essential viewing.

Baby Wants Candy’s hip-hop Hamilton homage returns! Following sold-out runs in Chicago, NYC and LA. We improvise an epic musical based on historical figures/celebrities you choose (Genghis Khan, Paul Hollywood, Kim Kardashian… anyone!). Just like Hamilton but (ahem) better! Expect the same level of hip-hop, storytelling, stunning choreography and powerhouse singing… except made up on the spot. ‘An absolute extravaganza, absolute pinnacle of improv. They freestyle lyrics that rival Lin-Manuel himself. Tremendously impressive, side-splittingly funny to the point oxygen becomes a luxury. Shamilton astounded me’ *****( It’s the show Lin-Manuel calls, ‘Cease and Desist!’

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical
Venue 33 Pleasance Courtyard – The Grand, 21:10, till 27 August

Very smooth and polished improvised musical.

The Olivier Award-winning West End hit is back! Every night is opening night for the hottest new musical in town! There’s just one problem, the writer hasn’t penned a note and needs your help! A hilarious musical comedy made up on the spot using audience suggestions, this multi award-winning must see show is back at Edinburgh Festival for a 14th year. A Fringe favourite, your Edinburgh experience is incomplete without it! ‘The funniest improv on the Fringe’ *****( ‘Achingly funny…worth seeing again and again’ *****(Time Out). ‘Had me weeping with laughter’ *****(Mail On Sunday).

Blue Badge Bunch: ReRamped
Venue 33 Pleasance Courtyard – Baby Grand, 11:30, till 28 August

Disability, empathy and fun wrapped in a wonderful gameshow for children.

The disability Taskmaster! A hilarious, interactive game show where each game represents a different disability, giving kids and grown-ups the chance to learn about autism and cerebral palsy among others. With host Benny Shakes and a panel of comedians, battling it out to come up trumps in a show where disadvantage is an advantage! Shortlisted for the Neurodiverse Representation Award 2022. ‘Cleverly thought out and engagingly interactive’ **** (ThreeWeeks). ‘Lots of fun’ ***** ( ‘Extremely inclusive’ ***** (

Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel
Venue 302 Underbelly, Bristow Square McEwan Hall, 13:30, till 13 August

Loved this longform improv show of manners and madness, everyone is having a fantastic time on stage.

The smash-hit West End comedy, as heard on BBC Radio 4, celebrates its 10th glorious year at the Fringe! The all-star cast (featuring Rachel Parris, Graham Dickson, Cariad Lloyd and more) improvise a hilarious new Jane Austen novel every show, inspired entirely by a title from the audience. Performed in period costume with live musical accompaniment – it’s a riotous, razor-sharp show where swooning is guaranteed. ‘Hilariously bold, wickedly funny’ ***** (Times). ‘One of the most enjoyable 60 minutes on the Fringe’ **** (Guardian).

Awkward Question Time
Venue 605, PBH’s Free Fringe @ Burrito ‘n’ Shake, 18:15, August 8-13, 15-20, 22-27

The intimate inner lives of comedians grilled for your amusement!

The hit streaming show and podcast are live for the first time in Edinburgh. Alex Leam takes a panel of comedians and performers from across the Fringe and asks them an hour of awkward and stupid questions. What could possibly go wrong? (The live shows will never be broadcast, what happens live stays live!)

Shakespeare Up Late: A Right Royal Visit
Venue 21, C ARTS, C venues, C Acquila, Roman Eagle Lodge, 22:40, till 27 August

Shakespearean chaos and satire as the bard would have wanted it.

All-new Shakespearian shenanigans from the company behind Fringe favourite Shakespeare for Breakfast. In this topical tragi-comedy Macbeth meets Ubu, as Mrs Macbeth, already first minister of Scotland, sets her sights on a newly crowned royal visitor. Will fair be foul or foul fair? Politics and parody meet puns and pandemonium in this satirical and sweary re-telling. A raucous comedy for everyone from Shakespearian novices to seasoned thespians. ‘Wonderfully chaotic’ (

Mog the Forgetful Cat
Venue 302 Underbelly, Bristow Square McEwan Hall, 11:30, till 27 August

The most perfect children’s theatrical experience. Lovely, touching and beautifully performed.

Judith Kerr’s Mog the Forgetful Cat, adapted for the stage by The Wardrobe Ensemble. A Wardrobe Ensemble, Old Vic, and Royal & Derngate Northampton co-production. Mog is a very forgetful cat. She forgets that she has a cat flap, she forgets that she’s already eaten her supper, and she forgets that cats don’t have eggs for breakfast every day. Bother that cat! But Mog’s forgetfulness can come in handy… ‘A miaow-vellous musical treat’ **** (Guardian).

The Full Irish
Venue 158, PBH’s Free Fringe @ Whistlebinkies (main room), 11:00, till August 27

Random stand-up action with whoever Chris has found to fill the bill!

The Full Irish will be served for the 10th year with lots of laughter from Irish acts from around the world. Chris O Neill curates the funny at an absurdly early hour for comedians. Come along for the perfect start to you day. A different show every day. People come back.

Venue 33 Pleasance Courtyard – The Grand, 17:30, till August 27

Meh, any sketch show will do.

We dedicate this year’s show to the late, great, founder of NewsRevue, Professor Michael Hodd, who launched this multi award-winning, Guinness World Record-breaking institution 43 years ago. Emma Taylor, its producer since 2001, says ‘it is fitting that Mike’s enduring legacy will make its debut in the iconic Pleasance Grand.’ Expect 100% brand-new material, much of it written by the preposterously talented cast and creative team. From King Charles to Keir Starmer, Prince Harry to Putin, Sunak to Strikes and Sleaze, no stone will be left unturned. NewsRevue provides ‘license to dissent en masse’ ***** (

Spontadeity: Whomst Let the Gods Out?!
Venue 151, Laughing Horse @ Bar 50 (garden room), 18:45, till 27 August

A super-fun shortform improv show, perfect for newcomers who may not yet believe improv is unscripted.

An improvised comedy extravaganza of tales of gods and monsters, heroines and heroes, mundane and mythological beings all made up on the spot each day from audience suggestions. Ever wondered what Zeus liked to eat for breakfast or how peanut butter was born?! You just might find out the answers to these mythological questions as well as unfold some rip-roaring epic tales with the help of Stägs Woodward, Josie Ettrick-Hogg and their fabulous guest improvisers. Come witness the birth of legends!

Bubble Show for Adults Only 2
Venue 38, theSpaceTriplex – Big, 20:40, till 26 August

Filth! But clean because bubbles! Funny, often clever with impressive bubble powers and powerful unapologetic performers.

New Show! Weekly Award Best Circus 2023 Fringe World, As seen in La Soiree, Australia’s Got Talent and iUmor. Continuing the phenomenal bubble artistry that audiences have come to expect, this brand-new show takes the beauty of body bubbling to another level. See beautiful bubbles, naughty bubbles, very phallic bubbles, bubbles as pasties, smoke bubbles, swirling torrents of bubbles that do things that you never dreamed of. A sequel to the Fringe cult hit that has sold out across the globe for eight years. If you haven’t adult bubbled, you have not Fringed.

Serious Nonsense (for Terribly Grown-Up People)
Venue 605, PBH’s Free Fringe @ Burrito ‘n’ Shake, 10:45, till 27 August

Superlative verse for children and adults, filled with silliness, laughter and child-friendly horror.

Funny, horrible and a little bit naughty, this poetry show is perfect for children no matter how old. Meet the chaotic kids, gruesome grown-ups and bizarre beasts that fill the imagination of Ben Macpherson (BBC Radio 4 Extra) and his debut poetry collection. Expect energetic rhymes, masterful storytelling and laugh-out-loud moments from this verbal tour de force. If you like Roald Dahl, David Walliams or Spike Milligan you are going to love this whirlwind of words. ‘Fantastic’ (Michael Rosen). Part of the PBH’s Free Fringe.

Mental Health Track 054

So, a full week back on the old sleeping tablets and frankly, it’s great. I’ve had a couple of nights where I haven’t fallen asleep immediately (or at least within my half hour ideal), but that’s mostly been a result of the aggravation of Britain’s brief heat wave. I have dug out my enormous-dog-sized cooling mat which I leave in the fridge all day then lay it on the bed and pillow for ten minutes before I subject myself to the bodily shock of lying on top of the icy layer. I reckon that cold shock itself does something good for dozing off. I am slowly getting used to the weird amitriptyline hangover – that peculiar lethargy and fuzziness first thing in the morning which makes it oh so easy to fall back to sleep. Easy enough that I’ve had to set a second alarm forty-five minutes later to catch me. That’s as disruptive as not sleeping for getting up and getting along with stuff first thing in the morning, but I believe I’m getting there. I did manage to scribble a short story on Monday morning, but I haven’t felt any need to maintain this mental health track. Dude, I’m sleeping again and that feels very good indeed. And with sleep restored that’s reduced any other mental quibblings to ignorable background noise (absolutely the recommended approach for internal feelings…)

Despite my absolute loathing of being too warm, I’ve been enjoying this week’s sunshine. I mean, I’ve had the window open all day for weeks anyway, but now I definitely need to apply sunblock just to sit at my desk. I’m rather looking forward to being in the coldest room of an old Victorian house this weekend for my dad’s 70th. Even though my old bedroom has been redecorated multiple times and lost all the trappings of myself at least a decade ago (alright, so the last hundred or so books only came out earlier this year!), it has continued to feel like a peaceful haven. It is of course the old servant quarters, and is alarmingly and unexpectedly two steps down from the rest of the first floor. It’s only one of the odd things I’ve always liked about it. When I was much younger there was a fire escape immediately outside the window, which led to what was once the separate flat on the second floor. With a big sash window it was the easiest thing in the world to hop out of it in the early hours of the morning. That’s how I spent many of my teenage insomniac nights, just going out for a smoke and wandering the streets at three in the morning. The fire escape was ironically an utter death trap, but I rather miss it. That, and the endless (sometimes poorly) fitted cupboards, wardrobe and sink. Love a bedroom with a sink in it. My bedroom felt like a self-contained unit, having its own exit and source of water, filled with hidey-holes and eventually an awesome amount of junk – much of it on the walls. For a few happy years I even had a beautiful little cat who lived in there with me, lovely Holly. The fire escape was good for her too, with a cat flap cut into the glass so she could hop in and out. I have so few continuous memories from those years, but I still miss her terribly.

I remember a lot of essay writing, lounging on a big Garfield cushion (possibly acquired from Castle Donington car boot sale), painting miniatures (badly) and reading. Lots of reading. It’s not a space that really has other people in it, not in my memories at least. Strange that. Well, some more from sixth form I guess, but it feels patchy before that. Peaceful loneliness for a big chunk of my teenage years, perhaps. Though now that I’m paying attention and focusing on it, I reckon I can detect or recreate sleepovers with a knackered fold-up bed. Dammit – yeah. Trying to go to sleep after watching An American Werewolf in London, terrified that my sleeping over mate would turn into a werewolf as I slept. Such a good transformation sequence! We definitely watched that one too young, but if I recall correctly the VHS tape came along with a bunch of Michael Moorcock books from a mail-order service. Even younger, I remember curling up with my brother and sister in a tight little nest as we tried to process what our parents getting divorced meant for us. And my brother hiding in the airing cupboard one Christmas Eve so he could catch Santa/dad in the act of filling a stocking. He fell asleep; I totally forgot he was there, and it took a panicky hour or so to find him on Christmas Day.

I have clearer memories of Blu-tacking various posters, scraps from newspapers, postcards and photographs to the walls; the excised pages from Dr Faustus after we gutted the play to perform at sixth form – actually we performed it at The Brewhouse, a proper theatre and everything. It all feels very jumbled. I wonder what else will pop back into mind later. OH YEAH – and the room had a goddamned attic too. Perfection.

So I guess this is where I am today, bumbling around in my half-forgotten past.

Film Reviews: Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse, Fast X, Sisu, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3

It’s been a good few weeks for BIG movies at the flicks. There are many huge explosions, stunts, fights and action galore. Occasionally there are characters too.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

The most utterly lush and gorgeous thing I’ve seen at the cinema since, oh – probably the first one. It is astonishing that a film can have such texture, both in the mashup of animation styles but also in the richness of its storytelling and character development. It’s a powerful statement of what superhero films can be. While I imagine having a decent knowledge of the many different Spider-Men (Spider-Mans…?) would be beneficial, it’s not a huge leap to grasp that they’re often quite different in their own dimensions, and they are delightful, wacky (cowboy and his steed, also wearing a Spider-Man mask), sometimes scary and all feel unique. This time we’re introduced to the world by Spider-Gwen, which is a lovely change of direction. We later revert to the equally brilliant Miles Morales as he encounters his next villain of the week, Spot. That’s also (possibly) the very best and most imaginative fight sequence from any film ever – he’s covered in spots which are little portals so if you punch him, you may punch yourself, but it goes waaay beyond that. Such cleverness simply never ends as we enter the very best version of the multiverse so far seen on-screen (yes, even more so than Everything Everywhere All at Once), so much more so than the MCU’s version which saddens me further every time it comes up. In the Spider-Verse, what happens in the other universes actually does matter, and the introduction of “canon” – core events which make Spider-Persons who they’re supposed to be become hugely important, driving the plot and the whole of the next film forward.

I can’t think of many films which are so welcoming and directly invite you into their story, using all the best of comic structures to label characters, offer backstories and directly talk to the viewer/reader. This is undoubtedly the best film I’ve seen this year. If you don’t already know – this is the first half of a two-part film (Beyond the Spider-Verse is out next year), and if you’re the sort of person who is driven to fury and sulking by a film ending halfway through, be prepared. The teenagers behind us were not ready for this and were hilariously outraged by paying to see half a film. Honestly, their absurd reaction was almost as good as the film. I’m kinda with them though, I felt the same at the end of Infinity War. Genuinely unmissable, but rewatch Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse first.


This is the perfect WWII spaghetti western set in Finland. Honestly, it’s brilliant. One old man, sick of war, goes off to mine gold high up in Lapland. He’s successful, but on his way back to civilisation to cash in his nuggets he’s fucked over by a bunch of Nazis who are busy razing Finland to the ground. They steal his gold, kill his horse, and he goes wild. This is a pure action movie, following the utterly relentless ex-soldier (who turns out to be a legend, having already massacred the Soviets, to the extent that Nazi command advise their officer to leave him the hell alone and count themselves lucky), who is drowned, blown up, hanged and more but just will not die until he’s reacquired his gold and taken his vengeance. He barely says a word, but Jorma Tommila’s face shows you every shade of pain and suffering. It’s extraordinary and highly cathartic to watch. There is not a lot of story to talk about since it’s just one man against the enemy, grinding them down even harder than they grind him. We’re given great action scenes, mixing horrific violence with comedy and great timing and it’s all just so damn good. The whole film is immensely satisfying, and if you don’t want to watch it immediately after seeing the trailer then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

Fast X

Ten times faster and ten times furiouser than The Fast and the Furious, the seemingly endless and pointlessly growing faaaaamily saga is slowly drawing to a close in yet more bloated and oddly boring action movies. We keep going to see these for a couple of reasons. The first film was fun, a snappy Point Break-ish cop going undercover in a street car racing gang to nab some muscle-vest wearing idiots who nick DVD players from moving trucks. Fun, fast, cool. Nine films later, Vin Diesel’s family of former enemies have lovely meals in his back garden while they’re resting from their missions for the super-clandestine Agency (the laziest and dumbest carbon copy of SHIELD I’ve seen onscreen for a while). That’s right, the car-racers are now secret agents. Also, they’re absolute morons – without exception. Is there a story here? Yes, but the film’s universe has been so poorly explored despite running to dozens of hours that they’ve had to retcon the events of a movie halfway through the franchise to create Dom’s ultimate nemesis: Aquaman. Well, not Aquaman proper, this is heavily queer-coded Jason Momoa, who is plainly having a lot of fun. To get a proper villain who could never simply be adopted into Dom’s family they’ve had to make the baddie as camp and murderous as possible. No way could he be one of his friends! Nope, Dom’ll take CIA, assassins, cops with a grudge, hackers, morons, other people who try to kill him, but not this guy. Anyway, Aquaman’s gonna destroy Dom’s perfect life because they retconned him into the film where his dad (who didn’t used to be his dad, because there wasn’t a son in it) died, and five films later he’s back (for the first time).

Like the last few films and the Michael Bay The Transformers movies, it’s impossible to figure out what’s happening or why because it’s all shot exactly the same way: super intense, super-exciting. No idea what matters, and the film ending came as a slight surprise because there had been no sense that it was wrapping up or building to anything. So what’s good about it? There are some fun car chases, albeit half-CGI and those bits look kinda ropy. Not enough of the moron characters (all of Dom’s faaaaamily) get punched in the face, though some do slap each other in a shitty London internet café. Lettie (Michelle Rodriguez) gets a good fight, earned solely through her own stupidity: told by Charlize Theron’s character (why are these people in this?) that they’ve got three minutes to escape, Lettie instead has a huge fight with her, tries to escape, fails and returns to the waiting Charlize and they escape together. One of the best things is Momoa (even if he does exactly the same thing in every scene), who people say is channelling Heath Ledger’s Joker but that’s way over-stating things. He’s mincing a bit, biting his lip and doing horrible things to people, for example the pair of Agency Agent corpses he’s putting nail varnish on. This is always true – the best characters in this franchise are the new ones, because they haven’t yet been brainwashed into the family and turned into morons. Also, John Cena – who I totally forgot was supposed to be Dom’s brother – who is not in any way playing his character and is just having a lovely silly time looking after Dom’s kid (oh yeah, that’s in the plot too). Shame he dies pointlessly. Sorry – spoiler. Oh, and the massive man playing Reacher on Amazon Prime shows up with a shit haircut, and he’s quite fun. I honestly never thought I’d miss Paul Walker so much – he was not a good actor, but he seemed like a really nice guy and he was the only character in the series that Dom’s character had any real fraternal chemistry with. Maybe the whole show has been Dom searching for a new and better brother but finding only absolute cretins and men who are twice his size.

There’s at least one more of these fucking things, and I desperately hope they all die in a fireball during it.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 3

This is a found family which I love returning to. In contrast to Fast X they’re all supposed to be morons, and they are, except they’re all super-competent in different ways and idiots about how they relate to each other. Here we finally resolve an awful lot of the relationships, hopes and dreams of these characters. They’ve been through a lot, both in the first two volumes of their trilogy, Infinity War / Endgame and odd, sort of pointless Christmas Special. I say pointless, but as it turns out, spending an additional forty minutes with some of these guys, Drax and Mantis in particular has genuinely fleshed out their characters further. At last the story turns to Rocket, injured by Adam Warlock (splendid force-grown golden dude with the brain of a child) and we finally get his much-hinted at backstory. He is indeed a raccoon. In a lot of ways this is a big ad for PETA, because animal vivisection does not come off well here – for parts of it I’d rather watch Watership Down again. The High Evolutionary’s attempts to develop intelligence and accelerate evolution is horrifying, and the story around his fellow animals, Lyla the otter, Teefs the walrus and the rabbit Floor, is absolutely devastating. Most of the film is the rest of the Guardians doing typical Guardian shtick while chasing down the MacGuffin which will let them fix Rocket. Along the way they really do become the heroes they’ve sought to be, despite their Ravager tendencies, rescuing all the High Evolutionary’s test subjects. The film is packed with gorgeous space environments, exciting action scenes, cool new Groot, and more, yet all I truly remember are the perfect character notes and conclusions for each of them. The thing I was most pleased and impressed by was their treatment of Gamora – Quill’s former love interest who died in Endgame, replaced by an earlier version of herself who never met or fell in love with Quill. It’s a wild concept anyway, and you can see why Quill struggles to handle being around someone he loved but has no interest whatsoever in him. And they don’t make her fall in love with him again. That alone is a goddamn victory for Marvel, whose habits in killing off female characters (including Gamora) and not acknowledging their deaths while having a full-cast funeral for Tony Stark has been atrocious. This is a wonderful finale for these characters and I can hardly wait to watch it again.

Mental Health Track 049

Up early on a Saturday? Ghastly. It is for a fine cause though: that of the Rebel Alliance. Today we’re driving down to Bath for the Bath Fringe, where we shall once more don the apparel of improvised Star Warses. It’s going to be very fun, even if it does involve quite a bit of time in a car.

I am somewhat knackered. The sleeping poorly thing has sucked this week – I am just not getting tired enough to sleep until the early hours of the morning and that’s not enough snoozing time. I need my beauty sleep (it’s for everyone else’s benefit of course). I missed yesterday’s scribblings because we were at UK Games Expo, which necessitated trying (and failing) to be at the Aconyte Books stand comfortably before 9am when the public were unleashed on the halls. There’s a chain of dependencies running backwards from there including important things like sleeping well and not cruising through an alarm, or the three that I set. In theory this should all have been fine – we finished set up in good time on Thursday, chilled out for a bit in my hotel room. I needed to sleep so badly by this point that I’d already given myself a severe burn on my wrist off the steam from the kettle in my hotel room. It took me a few seconds to realise why my wrist hurt, which is not a great indicator of wakefulness. I fled the room, bumbled around some shops to stay awake for a little longer, had some nice food and was back in my room by eight for winding down. I was so desperate to get a decent night’s sleep I even took my last couple of amitriptylines. I’d picked up a bath bomb, face and foot masks so I could laze in the bath. Dozed off a few times in there, read a few chapters of my book, dozed a bit more and yet did not properly get to sleep till after midnight and then woke up at five, having hallucinated my alarm. And then further half crash out, half semi-awake brain murmuring. Obviously that left me running late and hastily showering, acquiring breakfast and having a bag full of books explode on me. Not the best preparation for selling books and chatting with random folks for the whole day. It was good though, and we sold a heap of books to interested and nice people. I did a lot less wandering around the convention than usual, but I did score a few games in the bring and buy sale.

A lift home spared me from the horror of the Megabus (thank fuck) and it was lovely to be home at a sane hour, ready to wind down again. I caved once more and took some more amitriptyline, which appears to have knocked me out pretty well. Not for quite long enough because we’re being collected at 9.30 for the drive down. I’m feeling that familiar bodily lag from taking the sleeping tablets, but I appear to have a vocabulary and don’t feel too wretched. I’m not sure where I go from here with sleep habits and pills. I’m very conscious that the notion of failing to give up sleeping tablets is entirely a construct of my own, even if that doesn’t diminish its force. Requires more thought. But for now, I need to get in a car with some mates and drive to the Empire.

One More Village to Kill, Part Two

One More Village to Kill
One More Village to Kill, Part One

Sometimes I feel as if I’ve spent an awful lot of this war lying in rusty, blood-tainted water. Maybe that’s just what all wars are: a whole lot of terrified running around, falling over and praying for it all to be over. Sure meshes with my experience. The hunt for octals never seemed to end. We’d spend a day wiping out another village and receive orders to move on to the next. It’s one of the benefits of rank, I guess, to be filled in on a bit more of the plan than us at the bottom. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t. Watching the lieutenant receiving the next update in our mission plans makes me suspect it’s just another burden. All I want to be able to believe is that someone else is planning this war, because from my eye line all we’re doing is eradicating the countryside and everything in it.

We are somewhat depleted as a force. It’s unavoidable but we also haven’t been reinforced since that little shitshow a month ago where our own damn arobot took out a quarter of the squad. Friendly fire. These arobots are great to have in a firefight, as long as they’re on your side. As we trudge cross-country to our next mission I’ve settled into a long stride that never quite puts me in front of our remaining arobot. We had five to begin with, now we’re down to the one that didn’t go mad, kill its teammates or get ground under the teeth of an octal tank. Out here you bond in confusingly deep and intimate ways with your fellow soldiers, but with enough space that when they die you don’t go immediately to pieces – all that pain and grief can be stored up for when we finally get out of here. It’s not that you don’t bond with arobots – of course you do: slap a smiley face on a toaster and you’ll greet it good morning and thank it for burning your bread – it’s that they don’t seem to bond back. I know they aren’t people, but neither are cats or cars and I like both of mine well enough. Trust them… Well, I’m walking behind it aren’t I? I’d been calling this one “Clock” for a while. It needs a name, otherwise it’s just “that arobot over there” which is fuck all use in a fight. Anyway, “Clock”, from how it looks around, just stops and then its head clicks round in a full circuit with – I swear – twelve stops in all. Drove me crazy until I actually counted because the pattern was familiar yet seemed out of place on the neck of a humanoid robot. The other arobots didn’t do that, or at least not the same way. They might come out of a factory somewhere back home, but mould isn’t the same.

Following Clock turned out to be a good call on my part. Great thing about the arobots is that they don’t get tired, their attention doesn’t fade after six hours clumping across broken fields and over fucked up hedges. They’re just on all the time. So even though I didn’t spot the octals lurking in the copse ahead, I sure noticed the arobot react. I hit the ground with a yell, at approximately the same time one of the octal velocity weapons turned the top of the lieutenant into a bloody rainbow arching backwards for a hundred metres before fading into nothing. I like to think it was my strangled scream that saved most of our lives. We were in a bad place, caught while crossing the most open part of the field. Not that we’d had much of a choice since artillery had torn up every scrap of cover for the last half mile, covering the whole area with hedgerow turned into sharp chaff. Those same thorns and spikes of wood now stabbed me in every part of my body as I lay as flat as possible.

All the while, Clock, our last remaining arobot was moving. It’s genuinely difficult to grasp how their mission priorities work. They have the barest trace of interest in preserving human life, the mission is the thing. Although the lives of their squadmates are quite high up on the list, given that we’re often useful in accomplishing the mission. They also develop preferences and “habits”, yet more terminology that makes you feel like they’re people. Machines have protocols and logic gates, people have favourite colours and hobbies. Clock likes things to happen in a certain order, and it takes badly to other factors messing up that order. Much like its baffling choice of wearing a tartan shawl around it’s shoulders underneath the pack and armour, that preference is something the rest of the squad had wisely not fucked about with. There were plenty of stories about arobots going wild when command started restricting their habits and preferences. They both follow orders perfectly and are simply too lethal to impose whimsical orders on about what colours are acceptable in the field.

That shawl of Clock’s whirled and whipped about as the arobot charged the octals. Not a suicidal cavalry charge, it was a lot more acrobatic than that. I guess Clock had already figured out all the firing trajectories that the octals had from the little cluster of trees and was just moving between them, but from the ground it looked like dancing. We figured out what it was up to and started laying down some cover, pumping incineration fire into the copse ahead. That stopped when Clock – midway through something between a pirouette and flinging a spear – very precisely turned its head back to us at a weird sardonic angle, like “really?”, as if we were screwing up its plan. We made awkward eye contact with each other. It’s hard to shrug when you’re pressed into mud and brambles. So we just watched Clock do whatever it had decided to do. Oh, and checked all the other directions we could have been vulnerable from – we’re not bad soldiers, but arobots do have a weird effect on a squad, making you feel both indestructible and very, very fragile at the same time.

Clock reached the copse, despite the remaining octals focusing all their attention on him. Velocity spray arced around him, evaporating the ground it struck into columns of fading light. It had killed at least half a dozen just on the way across the field between us with unerring aim even as Clock tumbled and twisted. The octals obviously knew it would be all over once the arobot got its hands on them. I was relieved to see it didn’t individually decapitate them. I wasn’t ready for another fight with an arobot and I doubted there were enough left of us to survive that, especially after seeing Clock go into action. It had never done anything like that before, that combination of graceful balletic movement. The longer they survived, the weirder they got. But Clock just shot them all, left them smoking in the woods, then gestured impatiently for us to catch up.

Just behind the copse (or what was left of it) was a pristine octal half-track. Basically a jeep with caterpillar tracks. I mean, they’d have been tracks if it weren’t octal. The slippery, rubbery loop that wound around the wheels wasn’t what we’d have built but it did the same thing. Clock was already in the driving seat, one fist plunged into the weird biological interface the octals had instead of a wheel. We all piled in, grateful for the opportunity to pluck thorns from our clothing and skin. With a ticking scan around us, Clock drove us out of there. A somewhat worrying thought arose: with the lieutenant now dead, had the arobot decided it was our commanding officer? And was that an arobot preference I even remotely wanted to challenge?

One More Village to Kill, Part One