“Afghanistan Is Not Funny”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2022

Jeremy Malies at Gilded Balloon Teviot
7 September 2022

Was this the Henry Naylor who has previously enthused the part of me that is optimistic about the future of the Middle East? At other Fringe shows I have shared his confidence that sectarian differences in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq will be resolved (possibly through federalist government) and that minority religious groups such as the Yazidis about whom he is passionate will be allowed representation.

A political comedian who was once a lead writer on Spitting Image, Naylor is a staple at Gilded Balloon Teviot with a loyal almost cult following. He previously had an ability to satirize foreign correspondents with a deftness equalled only by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop.

Naylor tells us how in 2001, he had been intrigued, impressed and amused in equal measure by BBC journalist John Simpson’s entry into Afghanistan wearing a burqa. Naylor subsequently travelled to the region to fact-check his ideas for a play and was accompanied by the outstanding Scottish photographer Sam Maynard. The pair had a nerve-racking tour in which they encountered warlords, were captured by the Mujahideen and brushed up against the Taliban. I acknowledge that it’s braver more important work than anything done by me or fellow critics as we crouch in the dark with a notebook opining on the skills of others.

With his interest in Afghanistan piqued again as he watched the airlift from Kabul in August last year, Naylor has written a one-man show for himself in which he reflects on the trip two decades ago and back-projects some of Maynard’s photographs. It’s poor fare. Mimicry is not one of Naylor’s talents and in this monologue, he’s required to conjure up the many people involved in the trip. There are sequences in which he switches between playing himself and his psychologist that are woeful.

Certain elements work well; there is an extended discussion of the photogenic Darul Aman Palace outside Kabul with wonderful images, and we shudder when being told that what looks like paint splattered on a wall is the victim of an IED. But there is a crude exploitative element here and also in a final image of an improbably young Afghan mother pleading for help.

I’m willing to admit that I may have seen Naylor on a flat day and there were a few uncharacteristic verbal slip-ups. My increasingly dispirited and sketchy notes tell me that one of the ideas during the original trip was to write a comedy show about a CNN-style news team who are consistently beaten by John Simpson for speed of reporting.

There is the odd flurry of Naylor at his best: “I scanned the plane to see if there were any other playwrights fact-checking their play for the Edinburgh Fringe” but largely this is self-indulgent material being spun out a long way with much rehashing of old tropes. The figurative language is weak and laboured while the mocking of news anchors has no real heft.  There are only so many self-deprecating gags you can make on the theme of first-world problems and only so many stabs you can have at the way the BBC defends its editorial standards.

I end up not really caring about Naylor’s film project here. He tells us about an expression of interest from Hugh Grant and heavyweight director Stephen Frears. But the deal is scuppered (bizarrely) by fall-out from the unsavoury incident in which Russell Brand alleged on live radio that he had had sex with Georgina Baillie, granddaughter of the actor Andrew Sachs, and took pleasure in telling Sachs about it. I can’t remember why all this became relevant; I had long since put my pen down.

It’s a criterion that you’re supposed to consider at any play and occurs in rubrics for cub reporters. “Is the show value for money?” To my shame, I seldom give it any thought. But here, I came away thinking that at £18.50 for an hour of flimsy and often inept comedy, the ticket price was scandalous and it did the Gilded Balloon Teviot no credit. The venue boasts of being curated, and while Naylor may be a fixture here, the dramaturg should evaluate each of his projects even if his work is part of the staple diet.