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Rainer Hersch's Victor Borge
Published on Friday, 13 August 2010

4 stars

New Town Theatre (venue website)
5 - 29 Aug (not 11, 18, 25), 6:00pm (7:10pm)
Reviewed by Lee Zhuo Zhao

Victor Borge in his day was a massive sensation; at one point, the highest-paid entertainer in the world.  In my opinion, the main reason for his success was that he was the first person to combine the worlds of comedy and classical music, breaking down the stereotype that classical musicians were stuffy and lacking a sense of humour.  And then came Rainer Hersch.

First shooting to fame in the mid-nineties, just before Borge sadly passed away, Hersch too combines comedy and classical music and is regularly labelled as Borge's heir.  It is this incessant comparison, Hersch claims, which made him write this show. First performed on the Fringe in 2004, Hersch has brought it back after a four-year absence from Edinburgh, forced (according to his blog) by the high costs of bringing a show to the Festival.

But you know what? I'm puzzled.  Though I'm incredibly excited Hersch has returned – I first became familiar with his usual comic material back in the nineties on TV and radio – I'm puzzled why his publicity has made this show appear to a variant of his usual one man stand-up act, jokes with some music.

Because, let's be clear here: it's not.  And some people won’t enjoy this show for the simple reason it isn’t what they expected… for periods, it just isn’t funny at all.  But it's something better than that: an expertly-crafted biopic of the unique talent that was Victor Borge, from his early youth until his big breakthrough show on Broadway (when, due to Fringe time constraints, the story’s cut short).

Yes, there are some one-liners here, a few of Borge's routines there, and happily one of Hersch's own signature bits at the end.  But they are really only there to colour the narrative: they aren't the show.  Hersch, when he effects that Danish accent, isn't doing a comic impersonation, but playing Borge seriously.  We don't see Hersch the comedian, nor Hersch the musician, we see Hersch the dramatic actor.

And, my, he does a fine job, combining gripping storytelling with a clear respect for Borge.  However, Hersch doesn't pull any punches: he talks frankly about the dark secret behind one of Borge’s most famous sketches.  And just to prove the show’s not funny for good reason, he delivers masterfully the story of how Borge, a Jew, was not in Denmark because of a show when the Nazis invaded in 1940... but his cancer-stricken mother was.

For me though, the best part is saved to the end. In very un-Borge-esque fashion, Hersch plays Schumann's Traeumerei all the way through, ending on a touching note as well as showing that, like Borge, he is a fearsomely talented musician.

Maybe that was why – for the first time in a long while – I've left a supposed "comedy" show feeling sad.  Or maybe it was for another reason: the Majestic in New Town Theatre is not a huge venue, yet the room was barely a third full.  Worse still, I was easily the youngest person there... and I remember seeing Borge, very much alive, on TV.  I hope, over time, the size and composition of the audience will start to do this fine show more justice.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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