To say that finding an incumbent of the Church of England (or any religious body) doing comedy in a mainstream Edinburgh Fringe venue is unusual would be an understatement. But this is not your average parish vicar.
The Reverend Richard Coles found fame and fortune as part of The Communards and has since become a well known TV and radio personality, appearing on shows like Strictly Come Dancing. But he’s also a ‘simple country parson’. In this enlightening hour, we learn of Coles’ extraordinary journey. From affluent middle-class, middle England public school beginnings, to household fame and stardom in the subversive 1980s pop scene, living through the fear and horror of the HIV epidemic, to challenging Thatcherism and finally, the call to ecumenical life.
Coles has gathered some wonderful anecdotes from his immensely varied life experiences. He tells – at times almost hard to believe – tales with great warmth, sparkling wit and perfect comic timing. We are never far from the next laugh and there’s plenty of rock and roll anecdotes. Yet he also plumbs the depths, especially when speaking of the friends he lost to AIDS, the breakdown of British industry and subsequent strikes and his work with deprived children.
For anyone who remembers the 1980s, there’s much nostalgia here – and it’s a history lesson for those who don’t. Through the stories, we are reminded of how London has changed and is no longer accessible to young, poor artists in the way it once was. We are reminded that political turbulence is not a new phenomenon and how, thankfully, societal attitudes towards homosexuality have vastly improved.
There’s a joy to the piece and a sense of hope, calm and positivity. The material and delivery are enlightening, funny, well constructed and natural. It’s also refreshing – and unusual – to enjoy an hour of storytelling comedy that contains no swearing or smut. There’s plenty of room for that in the arts and at the Fringe, of course, it’s not a bad thing. But as it’s so ubiquitous, and a bit of a crutch for some performers, we need diversity of all kinds – including having some cleaner shows for adults.
#SimpleCountryParson won’t be for everyone. There are no bells or whistles. It’s a very gentle show – or rather talk. Just one parson, on stage, telling his unique life story. So while it helps if you’re interested in any of the topics he covers, there’s no doubt that Coles is a witty, intelligent and sage raconteur with a fascinating story, well told.