Friday, January 30, 2015

'James Veitch: Work in Progress' at the Pleasance Theatre, 29th January 2015

As always, please bear in mind that The Pleasance's current comedy season is intended to showcase works in progress. It's a dick move to criticise someone working out the particulars of their act; you don't get to be a shining star at the Edinburgh Fringe without a bit of trial and error.

I've always been wary of including technology in performance. The moment you bring a laptop, projector or phone on stage you're introducing a thousand different variables. Before you know it you're bound up in a cocoon of USB, HDMI and power cables, each with their own very important socket to be in. James Veitch lives within this rat's nest of wires, his act relying on a Macbook Pro, an iPhone, a projector, a keyboard and the co-operation of a sound man way up high. Bigger men than Veitch have foundered against technological rocks like these.

Fortunately, Veitch is a genius - it says so on his business cards. Coming straight to us from the corporate world of Apple, if anyone canget all this technology synchronised it's him. Even if he wasn't wearing an Apple branded t-shirt you'd figure him for the Genius support type; rake-skinny, thick-framed glasses and a pallid complexion that suggests long, late nights in, illuminated only by the cold glow of a Retina screen.

In terms of personality he's flighty and high-strung, flitting between several different subjects at once, all peppered with self-deprecation. It's as if his lips can't keep up with the speed of his mind, uhmm-ing and ahh-ing down a couple of trains of thought at once. He reminded me of a young Woody Allen, performing as much to himself as to the audience - a stage persona that flirts with innocence and optimism before collapsing down to a rueful core.

Much of what saw being worked out last night were tricks and games played with websites and apps. The best example was lifted from his previous show. Veitch signed up 'Guardian Soulmates', his profile picture showing him with a friendly duck. Upon his account being suspended on the grounds that no other person was allowed to be in the picture, he complained and got it reinstated.  He then followed this up by sending the website an angry letter from the duck. The duck then got it's own (far more successful) dating profile.

Veitch & duck
Told through Powerpoint it's an engrossing, surreal and deeply funny routine, apparently influenced by the precise geekiness of Dave Gorman. But the theme of screwing with the established rules of websites and apps goes on to head pretty damn close to the bone. The most striking part of the set revolves around 'Be My Eyes'; an app for people who're blind that lets them contact a sighted person who will describe what their phone camera is pointed at.

Problem is, there's a huge imbalance between potential helpers and those who need assistance. Veitch decides to have some fun with this enormous bank of patiently waiting eyes. Feigning blindness he holds a letter up the camera: it's a goodbye from his dying Grandmother. She says she has one, final, crucial, all-important piece of advice for him - but the letter eventually trails off into frustrating incoherence. 

The idea of some good-natured soul getting suckered into first breaking a death to a blind guy, then being unable to finish reading the letter, is funny. Funny in a goddamn cruel and morally questionable way granted, but still funny. Problem is, in technical terms it doesn't quite come together. Maybe the app is crappily coded, but the voices coming down the line sound like drowning robots, reduced to disjointed metallic whining.

Things get even more confusing when Veitch bravely attempts it live. The randomly picked responder sounds like he's in a bathroom and seems to care little about reading the letter. It's the kind of great idea that, if it worked as planned, would be the delicious cherry atop a fluffy comedy cake. But there's a heck of a lot riding against it working live - so many stars have to align just right.

Despite the technical hitches throughout the act, momentum is just about maintained. We skip willy-nilly between topics, but usually alight on some well-observed aside. My favourites were a great gag about being unable to connect to the omnipresent BTOpenzone wifi, the realisation that living alone finally allows you to see how long shower gel really lasts and using the looparound 'Lost Forest' level in The Legend of Zelda as a metaphor for life.

Veitch is clearly not short of inspiration; tossing out original, interesting and imaginative ideas like confetti. It's an extremely promising act, especially when you take into account how polished the older stuff is and imagine the newer stuff taken to the same level.  I'd love to see this show with the creases firmly ironed out and the gags polished to a mirror sheen. It's brimming over with potential and as long as the tech behaves itself this should knock audience's socks off.

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