John-Luke Roberts: Terrible Wonderful Adaptations review, Edinburgh Fringe: highbrow tomfoolery

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John-Luke Roberts hosts Terrible Wonderful Adaptations
John-Luke Roberts hosts Terrible Wonderful Adaptations

Affable absurdist John-Luke Roberts is one of the busiest (and funniest) people at this year’s Fringe. As well as performing his own impressive solo hour, and co-hosting the nightly variety show ACMS, he’s found time for this brilliantly bonkers must-see project on the side. Every Friday, Roberts ropes in “a bunch of idiots” to adapt the unadaptable, with previous star guest comics including Mark Watson and Kieran Hodgson.

The first week was the iTunes Terms and Conditions contract; the final show will be a double bill of Ulysses and Proust. The night I caught it, Roberts was dressed as “French cupid” (thick accent, beret, nappy, hearts drawn in lipstick on his nipples) for a version of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse that surely had the French philosopher spinning in his grave.

In advance of the show, each act is sent a chapter of the tome to study. Friday’s batch threw themselves into the challenge with aplomb – while often cheerfully admitting they hadn’t understood any of it. Hodgson turned Barthes’ theory of frustrated love into a genuinely touching piece of romantic fiction about heartbreak in the Outer Hebrides, while another guest used the idea of “inner demons” as an excuse to re-enact the plot of Hellboy II.

Half the things that happened in last Friday’s show defy explanation; just trying to describe what I’ve seen, I feel the need for a stiff drink. At one point, a miniature spiegeltent popped up onstage, for a one-woman mime play about nurses in early 20th-century Ireland, complete with dry ice and strobe lighting – performed for the enjoyment of just one audience member. The rest of us were left giggling helplessly as we stared at the outside of the wobbling tent. It was a profound metaphor for how one desires what one cannot have... probably.

Sitting in full view of the audience throughout, at a desk covered in papers, Roberts flicks through the book in question, watching the acts with quizzical interest, tipping over into  tutting disdain whenever they venture too far from the source material (which is most of the time). He’s such a gifted physical clown that each subtle eye-roll is guaranteed a laugh. On Friday, he upstaged the final act with a single baffled blink.

Like any mixed-bill show, the quality is necessarily uneven (one skit from prizewinning duo S—t Theatre was a letdown on Friday), but the unique concept brings out some truly inventive tomfoolery: it’s everything you could want from a left-field, late-night Fringe cabaret. There’s only one performance left. Fight for a ticket.

Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, Aug 24 only; 0131 556 1513, edfringe.com