Every so often an 80s legend will drop back into the Fringe with a lot fanfare and retrospective hoo-hah. This year it’s Alexei Sayle. But there’s plenty of comedians of similar vintage who slog it out year-after-year on the Free Fringe. Charmian Hughes is one. And this man, Ivor Dembina, is another. He first turned up in 1988, compering for Jo Brand and others at the Pleasance. Now, he perennially turns up with his main show, Old Jewish Jokes. This one, in the revamped lounge of the Counting House, is something he’s working on, he says. It’s not clear to what end. It’s too stop-start to merit the title “show”. It’s a very informal comedy kickabout.
To see Dembina is to get a flavour of Fringes of old. He’s old school dark with few concessions to modern comedy fashion. This is a good thing. He has a book, presented to him by his fellow comics after the aforementioned Pleasance show, full of the jokes they got audience members to submit during that show. He reads a few samples, and they’re savage. There’s some close-to-the-bone sectarian material, gags about Edinburgh being the AIDS capital of Europe, all stuff that would be self-edited these days for fear of offence. Dembina maintains that spirit to this day. He’s probably the only Fringe comic who’d attempt (and succeed with) a “too-soon” Grenfell gag, and a paedophilia joke that’d have other comics thinking twice.
So, when he gets his act together, he’s very good. But, as mentioned above, this is all very informal. He tries not even using a mic, but some older members of the audience get him back on it. He has us all guessing how much he took in his last show’s bucket collection – a primer in Fringe economics for those who don’t know. And in a similar participatory spirit, he has us guessing the political affiliations of other audience members; all just a set-up for another moment of inappropriateness.
Today’s show also has a perfect “wind-out-of-your-sails” piece of audience interaction:
Dembina to couple in audience: “Where did you two meet?”
Woman of the couple: “At his wife’s funeral”
The indecorum of it is of a piece with the rest of the hour. There’s nothing flash or fully-formed or even much of a show, but it’s an opportunity for younger audiences to learn and older audiences to remember what it’s like not to self-censor everything.