HERE’S an article I wrote for Scotland on Sunday in 2007, about a day spent trying to keep up with comedian Phil Nichol. If you’ve never been to the Edinburgh Fringe before, it’ll give you a flavour of this round-the-clock festival. More from Phil Nichol in this podcast here.
I’ve won. It’s 1.30am in the Pleasance Dome and Phil Nichol is telling me that he’s going home to bed. There’s still an inch of beer in my glass. Victory. If only by minutes, I have outlasted this one-man force of nature.
But my victory is a hollow one. All I have had to do is spend the day trailing the Canadian comedian, winner of last year’s if.comedy award, and that has been exhausting enough. He, by contrast, has had to spend the whole day being Phil Nichol, performing in three shows, directing another. When he wakes up again for his 8am jog, he will have to do it all again.
The day starts 12 hours earlier at the up-turned purple cow known as the Udderbelly where Breaker Morant is playing. Starring Adam Hills and Brendan Burns, it’s a true-life courtroom drama about military abuses during the Boer War (shades of Abu Ghraib) and is directed by Nichol for his own Comedians Theatre Company. Bearded and dishevelled, Nichol shouts over to me from the bar as I arrive a few minutes late (already I’m failing to keep up with his pace). He apologises that he’s not going to be able to sit with me, but he’s trapped a nerve in his bottom and is going to have to stand in the lighting box during the show. It’d be great if I could get out of the theatre promptly at the end so he can make his appointment for a deep-tissue massage.
The play goes down well with the early-afternoon audience and, as the applause dies down, we hook up again and leg it over to the Pleasance Dome. Nichol never lets up, shouting greetings to Simon Amstell and Adam Bloom, explaining how he was locked out of his flat last night after using his keys as a prop and leaving them on stage, and how he didn’t get any sleep because of the pain in his leg. We meet masseur Zeb Shaw who suggests Nichol lies on the floor behind a large cupboard in the performers’ lounge. Salubrious it is not, but on Planet Nichol there is not much option.
“You’re getting none of the nice stuff,” says Shaw as he sets to work. It’s unlikely Nichol would appreciate it if he did. He’s too busy texting to notice what Shaw is up to. “I don’t have time to lose,” he says. “I’m organising my next show.”
With his eye on the clock, Shaw tells him to forget the phone and sit up for some stretching exercises. “I can tell you your obituary will be a heart attack,” he says. “You work too hard.”
“I’ll no’ die,” quips Nichol adopting the accent of his Scottish mother. “I cannae afford the funeral.”
And with that, he’s back on his feet and we’re racing across to West Regent Street to the Bonsai Japanese Bar and Bistro where Nichol is to be interviewed by fellow comedian Lucy Porter for a Guardian podcast. A small entourage of PR people and promoters is building when, by chance, the Breaker Morant cast shows up for a meal. Nichol holds forth, plugging his shows for the tape recorder, ordering large quantities of food (this man needs fuel) and bantering across the restaurant to Adam Hills and Brendan Burns as if they’re in a comedy club.
But no time for digestion. Nichol has a play to star in. So it’s over to the Pleasance Courtyard at a trot to catch up with Lizzie Roper, Tony Law and the rest of the cast of Killer Joe waiting in the changing room. The black comedy by Tracy Letts is another production by the Comedians Theatre Company, this time with Nichol starring. Appearing in his underwear like a live action Homer Simpson, he plays the father of a trailer-trash family who hire a contract killer to bump off his ex-wife. The seedy milieu explains Nichol’s hirsute appearance.
The performance is delayed while the ushers ask a mother with a baby to leave for fear of disruption, which means after the curtain call Nichol is racing faster than ever. We whip through the Pleasance crowds to a waiting taxi and head across to the Stand, while Nichol tries to wipe off the stage blood from Killer Joe’s climactic scene. We make the comedy club just in time for him to change and do a sound check (for Hiro Worship he’s joined by a three-piece band) and before you know it, he’s up on stage delivering a blistering comedy routine about the nature of celebrity and the time he befriended an obsessive Japanese Rolling Stones fan.
If this set was the only thing he’d done all day, you’d be blown away by his ferocious energy and breakneck verbal delivery. Those who saw the award-winning The Naked Racist last year, say this one is even better. His delivery was faster still at yesterday’s gig, says one of his band mates.
Just time for a top-up massage from Shaw, who’s shown up for the gig, before we’re back in a taxi returning to the Pleasance to meet Tom Daley, Nichol’s co-director on Breaker Morant. Pretty soon we’re swept up by a bunch of comedians gathering for tonight’s Old Rope, Nichol’s nightly comedy club dedicated to new material: whenever a stand-up resorts to old gags, they have to grab hold of the noose that hangs over the stage. The press are not normally invited to the cult club, but I don’t mind telling you it’s a great night with top performances from the likes of Richard Herring and Paul Foot – and, of course, Nichol as compère, only slightly the worse for a Jack Daniels or two.
Comedian Nick Doody tells me about the time Nichol ran the London marathon and still did a gig the same night. Everyone is in awe of his stamina, which is why I believe him when he suggests going to Spank, the early-hours comedy club, to do an impromptu set. But on a Monday night with a painful trapped nerve, it’s too much even for him. All the same, he’s still proposing we go for another drink as he limps off into the night.
© Mark Fisher, 2007 and 2013