On the surface, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a carnival of chaos come August, arty hopefuls trying to bellow above the rest of the crowd, performers trying to catch the eye of American tourists dressed as a tent, people looking at posters for missing person persons not knowing if it is a seriously deep play by an earnest theatre group. Edinburgh differs significantly to most other comedy festivals in terms of it being a marathon run, but also it being an opportunity to be ‘discovered’. Either snagging the golden gong the Edinburgh Comedy Award, or being found in a pokey room singing songs about epileptic dogs that end up being one of the most iconic comedy series on HBO. Not everyone who goes to Edinburgh is taken a show that is almost a ready made format but some shows are almost ready made for a transfer to the screen, in recent years ‘Go 8 Bit’ and ‘Joke Thieves’ were picked up and commissioned. ‘Hell To Play’ devised by comedians Alexander Bennett and Paul Savage, is a game show featuring guest comedians and audience members who are put to the test by Satan in games set by the dammed. I quizzed them on where the idea of the show came from, how it has developed and how they find Edinburgh as a platform to gain serious interest.
How did you conceptualise the idea for your show?
Alexander: The idea came from a few places. Firstly, the desire to work with other people, both in terms of writing and being able to play with them on stage. At the time I was working with a lot of comics who were fantastically creative but almost puritan in terms of their material, and I like things that play around with the boundaries of taste (I don’t think there’s a lot around in the UK at the moment that does this in a creative and interesting way), so I wanted to do something that had that element to it. I was also trying to think of format ideas for a podcast (I like podcasts, but much prefer the ones with strong formats recorded with audiences).
Then, on YouTube, I watched a bizarre documentary that I had seen years before and forgotten about. It’s called Bernard Manning: From Beyond The Grave and was made with Manning before and after he died, with some scenes being shot at a fake funeral and some at his genuine funeral, and people being interviewed before and after his death. It is very weird. In the documentary, there are scenes in which Manning argues he’s a good man to St Peter, and this put all the ideas of heaven and hell, being judged on your sins, using people who were dead as characters (you can’t libel the dead, so I’m told), old school entertainment formats from the era Manning was from, bad taste – all of this formed into Hell To Play, the game show set in Hell, hosted by the Devil. Contestants compete in games set by the damned to save their souls from the eternal fire
Hell To Play sounds simple, and is simple for audiences to understand, but it’s quite a complicated concept, as it’s not a sketch show, it’s not a game show, it’s not a character comedy show, it’s not a panel show, it’s not an improv game – it’s a mixture of all of those things together. I put my feelers out on social media to see if anyone wanted to fund the show (I was completely skint) and I was very lucky Paul, who is an old friend and a comic I’ve known for years, took to the idea. He’s a brilliant comedy writer and said he’d fund it if we could write it together and we have been ever since.
PAUL: When Alexander first pitched me the idea, the format wasn’t exactly the same as it is now. I was going to be onstage the full time in a dog costume as the three headed guardian of hell Cerberus. I was going to be essentially Dictionary Corner, chipping in with anything funny that occurred to me.
Me and Alexander did almost the entire script to the first version in one afternoon sat on the scrubby bit of grass outside Euston station because we couldn’t afford to go sit in a pub and nurse pints. It involved us laughing for 30 minutes about cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer using the line “oh, you are offal, but I like you” which never got a laugh and was binned 3 shows in.
Then the cast we’d lined up all dropped out on the same day after we’d sent them the script. Although I recognise a lot of it looks a lot worse on the page. Half of the show is trying to sell the horrible jokes. There’s a lot of chutzpah and knowing winks that we don’t really mean it. We ended up reducing the cast to 4, Joe Hart stepped in, and me and him played multiple parts. I really like the knocked together, coming apart at the seams, shambolic nature of it. I think Hitler’s much funnier as a character if he’s wearing a gaffer tape moustache. Although it does upset me how many of the characters I play are terrible awful people and how the costuming for them is for me to wear my actual clothes. Bobby, who was a school shooter I played in the second iteration, was just me wearing my coat with the hood pulled up over my face. God was played with me wearing a white suit I happened to own.
I was going travelling after the fringe, but I wanted to keep writing for it. I kept a bit of my pad free for stray lines and wrote jokes whilst I went backpacking round South America. I wrote a huge monologue for Satan whilst flying above Peru’s Nazca lines in a tiny plane to distract me so I didn’t vomit. I ended up volunteering at a Christian charity in La Paz which works with counselling women trapped working as prostitutes in the Red Light District. We used to write across Skype on my lunch breaks on weds afternoons, so I would find somewhere quiet that had wifi, which more often than not was the chapel, so we wrote some pretty out there jokes for Satan to say whilst bathed in the light of a stained glass window. And we’ve continued this theme of writing it in odd places by writing parts of it in Enfield Wetherspoons (which isn’t remotely near where either of us live) and part in a National Trust cafe because I was driving my mum’s car that day, which has a national trust window sticker and I realised we could save loads on parking in London.
How long have you been working on it and have you had any industry interest thus far?
Alexander: It’s about 3 years, give or take the time the original concept idea took to form. There has been industry interest, we were nominated for an award, picked to appear at the End Of The Road festival and this year The Stand have made us part of their fringe programme at the New Town Theatre, which we’re delighted with. We’re still relatively under the radar but we’ve had a couple of TV producers be keen to keep an eye on us. Other comics are very enthusiastic about the show, which is a good sign.
Paul: I’m not sure there’s such thing as “the industry” anyway. There’s people, who work for companies, who can make this happen. But there’s not some round table where they get together and work out who to make and break as some sort of cartel. We had a big touring agent came to look at us, and that was based purely off the fact that his wife had played it and came home raving to him about it. There’s a couple of independent radio producers looking at it, possibly for radio 4 or Amazon’s new podcast thing, but again, there’s no “industry”. That’s two blokes in v necks saying they might be able to do it.
How viable do you find the Edinburgh Fringe as a market festival at current?
Alexander: I think if you’re going to the Fringe with the only purpose of selling a product or getting a specific deal done, that’s not going to work out for you. However, if you’re looking at it as a market there’s a lot of opportunities you can take at the festival, and the best thing is probably to try and create your own opportunities. I think the only real guarantee is that if you work very hard something will happen
Paul: The intention has always been to go and make good shows. I’ve always made a profit at the fringe, though because we were splitting the bucket 4 ways Hell To Play is not a cash cow. It makes money, sure but we hope we stick in the mind longer than straight stand up. Certainly my solo shows the last two years have far outstripped Hell To Play in profitability, but I doubt as many people remember them as they do Hell To Play.
Giving the immense competition, how do you try to stand out from the crowd?
Alexander: This sounds really obvious, but try and do something different to what anyone else is doing. That’s about it really. At the Fringe, it helps if you have a strong concept you can pitch in one or two sentences.
Paul: I do most of the flyering, and it really helps if you can get a strong punchy two sentence thing. “A game show, set in hell, hosted by the devil, where we torture two comedians every night for your entertainment”. Then you have to find a way of saying that 200 times a day and not driving yourself mad. It’s entirely possible that I died years ago and flyering is an ironic punishment for my numerous sins. Though it is slight baffling that despite it being called Hell To Play, and the opening 5 jokes mention Hell 7 times, that we had two reviews last year saying it was set in Purgatory, which we never mention once. Mostly because Purgatory doesn’t exist as a biblical concept. I’m a Preacher’s son, and I like to smuggle in at least 3 bits of scripture into every show. It’s my way of making up for writing such a blasphemous show. I also hope that when I die, and I meet God, he doesn’t mind that I played him as a coked up cockney gangster.
You can catch Hell To Play: The End of Times at the New Town Theatre at 21:45 on 2, 4-14, 16-27 of August, 16+