Which are the best comedy shows to see at Edinburgh Fringe?
Sophie Willan – Branded – Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker 2 – 20.00
From the get-go, it is very, very obvious that you are in the presence of a special talent in Sophie Willan. She has an ability to connect with her audience that many far more experienced comedians would die for. She’s warm and self-deprecating, but full of confidence and attitude.
Very aware that as a northern working class female comedian, brought up on a council estate by a heroin addict mother, she ticks so many boxes for the middle-class arts elite that permenate the business like a quinoa-based mycelium, her show is all about breaking out of such confines, definitions and boundaries placed upon you.
There’s such heft and guts to her comedy, as she draws on ever darker and difficult life experiences, but she emerges as victorious and not as victim, through sheer bloody-minded determination, mixed with hard work and stellar talent. And that is so inspiring and so life-affirming.
She puts so much into the show and it’s first and foremost brilliant, belly-laugh comedy, but what elevates it far above so many other shows is the profound and emotional resonances that it evokes. Many of the packed audience were tearful at the end, I know I was, and you leave feeling that you’ve not just experienced an hilarious hour, you have experienced an important, profund hour.
Branded deserves to be an award-nominated show. It is one of the best I’ve ever seen at the Fringe at any time in the last two decades and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It really is that special.
Kae Kurd – Kurd Your Enthusiasm – Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker 2 – 17.30
This is Kae’s first full hour show in Edinburgh. He uses his Kurdish heritage as the core of all the material. But for such a personal show, talking about the culture he grew up in, it feels a bit half-hearted. It is as though he’s too inhibited to really throw everything at it. There’s not enough commitment to the material, possibly because the material itself isn’t high enough quality. Indeed, it feels a little unoriginal. There’s a decent 20-minute slot in this, but the hour-long form requires so much more effort and graft.
Part of this is down to inexperience. His delivery is sometimes too fast or off-hand, but that is understandable in the circumstances. The core issue is the jokes are not strong enough and at times are a little repetitive, covering the same ground in different ways. All of which you can compensate for by connecting on a personal and emotional level with your audience. But he didn’t do that on the evening I saw him, resulting in it sometimes feeling more like a sterile lecture than a comedy routine.
There are some good punchlines and he’s clearly confident in his ability. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him in a couple of years time deliver some top notch humour, but there’s a long road to walk before that happens.
James Adomian – Lacking In Character – Gilded Balloon – Sportsman’s – 21.15
A reliably funny American comedian with a lot of experience should have no trouble getting an audience in Edinburgh. It always helps if you can show a little bit of understanding of the local culture because it makes the locals feel like you’ve made some effort. James does a bit of that, but not quite enough. Indeed, some of the set sounded as though it was being performed for an American audience. Some cultural references would not be understood by a Scottish audience. There is obviously a lot of cultural cross-over, but it can inhibit a sense of inclusivity if you don’t reach across the water far enough.
There was strong material on his sexuality which went down well. It’s early in his run yet and the venue, with a high stage, isn’t as conducive to comedy as some, but he did seem a little nervous, especially in the opening 15 minutes.
It isn’t the most original, energetic and intellectually stimulating comedy you’ll ever see, but it is a funny and enjoyable hour.
Matt Forde – A Show Hastily Rewritten In Light Of Current Events – Again. Pleasance Courtyard – Forth – 20.30
Now playing one of the Pleasance Courtyard’s bigger venues, Matt is pulling sizeable audiences for his mix of political jokes and pin-sharp impressions. The key to the success of such shows isn’t actually the accuracy of the mimicking beyond a certain point, it is the strength of the material. It’s no good being able to do voices if you’ve nothing original to say or no good jokes to make.
Fortunately, Matt Forde does. Partly this is because we live in such extraordinary times that, as the title of the show suggests, there is no shortage of important breaking news. He is exceptionally good at Donald Trump but of course there is nothing too ludicrous that he wouldn’t say in real life, so satirising the weirdo orange-faced baboon is a tough gig.
Where I think Forde scores big is in his scattergun approach. There is little or no siding with or for anyone, possibly because so many of the current major politicians are so woefully inadequate, both intellectually and spiritually, that ‘none of the above’ is the most sensible option. This allows him a free reign to rip into anyone and achieve the widest appeal.
You’re clearly in safe hands here. A little bit more original staging would be nice. A few more dynamics would lift some of the less stellar material, but even so, this is a quality show which will entertain all who see it.
Geoff Norcutt – Right-Leaning But Well-Meaning – Underbelly – Wee Coo. St George Square. 18.40
I’m willing to bet there is more than one comedian who votes Tory, but don’t share that with their audience. Geoff has no such inhibitions and you can see why. It’s an understandable marketing ploy to find an audience.
The trouble is, I suppose, you might attract a crowd that is properly right-wing and from this showing, Geoff really isn’t that right-wing at all. In fact, I think he inadvertently showed how useless such ‘left’ and ‘right’ labels now are.
It’s a tricky balancing act because proper right-wingers could make you look very bad, if only by association. On the night I was there, there were definitely some who wanted harder, nastier material. Definitely. And they were disappointed.
He’s a likeable presence and interestingly, I think you could put 85% of his material into the mouth of a liberal progressive comedian and not notice the difference. There is some mild support for the Tories, but even he recognises how hopeless they’ve been and how the party is so often represented by bloviating, privileged posh airheads. His anti-Corbyn stuff is very soft really and consists of the sort of jokes a non-political comedian might make about him.
Actually, I felt his show was more about class than political party. That it was more a kick against the middle-class cultural overlords who take it upon themselves to dictate so much about our lives. His idea to outsource middle-class protests to working class football fans was a really brilliant moment; the best moment, in fact.
The ‘right-leaning’ thing is fine for marketing, but I’d like to see him take a more eviscerating look at class politics because on this evidence, he’s far more convincing on that ground and genuinely has something original to say. Even so, this is fine show and one that many will enjoy.
Joseph Morpurgo – Hammerhead – Pleasance Courtyard – Pleasance 2 – 20.00
Joseph’s shows at the Fringe are always well-attended and hotly anticipated because he has unique ways to stage his shows which make them both funny and narratively satisfying. Hammerhead is no different. As a post-show deconstruction of a nine-hour play about Frankenstein, that we haven’t actually witnessed (thank God), it is a clever format which moves at a cracking pace and as it all begins to fall apart – as you knew it would from the start – what began as a tight little performance, ends up shattered and chaotic and very funny.
With judicious use of audience participation mixed with video content, this is a multimedia show which satisfies from start to last. It is perfect for the hour-long Fringe format and being a kind of comic drama, is an ideal as a way to break up your evening of seeing regular stand-ups. Just hugely enjoyable.
Mark Steel – Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be Alright – Assembly – Rainy Hall – 21.35
The opening 20 minutes of this show is the funniest I’ve seen Mark Steel be over many years now. Bounding around the stage, leaping up and down in joy at the election result and the Tory car crash in general, there is real hilarity and energy to his performance.
From there he turns the volume down a bit as it becomes clear that he has been going through a divorce after 11 years of marriage. Much of the subsequent material is grown-up stuff about the details of deconstructing a relationship both spiritually, emotionally and legally. How everything that was once whole becomes sliced and diced into a million different actions and motivations, for which you are obliged to account. At points, this is quite a moving tale. The sadness, palpable.
That’s not to say it is a miserable show, far from it, but drawn from real life, there’s no hiding from the pain and upset of such a big life event. Indeed, the title of the show is deliberately ironic because he knows it simply won’t be.
There’s nothing fake or dissembling about Mark’s comedy and that in itself is refreshing and noble. Playing to packed houses all month, he’s well worth some of your hard-earned.
PAUL FOOT – ‘TIS A PITY SHE’S A PIGLET – Underbelly – Belly Dancer – 19.10
Paul brings his special flavour of madness to his usual room at the Underbelly with a rerun of last year’s show. The mystery of the art of the Foot, is that every performance appears randomly improvised and chaotic. But it isn’t. Not at all. Yet Paul’s head-banging, gibbering weirdness makes it seem that way.
In fact, this is more clowning than stand-up comedy, but with some interesting psychological undertones. The punching of a stuffed toy is a very funny deconstruction of the human psyche, dressed up as anarchic madness. Clever. Very clever.
Flat-out hilarious throughout, he remains one of the most original laugh-makers at the Fringe, consistently brilliant and now with a growing army of fans who pack out most shows, this is live comedy at its most original.
So join the Paul Foot universe for an hour and visit a place where the more things do not make any sense at all, the funnier they are.
Alex Kealy – The Art of the Keel – Just The Tonic – Caves – 16.20
Performing in one of the Fringe’s most claustrophobic, hot and odiferous venues can’t be easy, but Alex did a good job of entertaining a relatively young capacity Saturday afternoon crowd. From the start he claims to be a political comedian, but that’s not especially true. He talks about the political situation, yes, but rarely from a politically philosophical standpoint. This is observational humour about politics, which is different from being a political comedian.
He says he’s ‘centre-left’ but that always strikes me as a lazy short-cut to try and get the audience on your side. Your politics should emerge from your material, so that tagging yourself in such a way from the beginning is unnecessary. And so is saying whether a joke has gone down well or not and whether it will be in the next performance. We don’t care.
His slightly halting manner and a habit of not finishing sentences are the sort of characteristics which endear or annoy. Although he’s been performing for at least six years now, he still feels rather unformed and awkward in his own skin. The material is OK but, to an older audience, would feel very well-worn. He’s not breaking any fresh ground here, but then if you’re new to seeing stand-up it will all feel bright and interesting and he certainly was well-received by that element in the audience.
While there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the hour, ultimately it all felt a bit fluffy and inhibited and was neither satisfyingly visceral political comedy, nor emotionally unique soul-mining. But he’s still young and growing into the gig. Definitely has potential.
ANDREW MURPHY – THOUGHT CRIMES – THE STAND 1 – 18.30
Playing to a packed Saturday night audience, Andrew stormed this gig with his usual mixture of snarky sexuality and narky politics. It was very enjoyable and laughter echoed throughout. The fact he apparently drank a whole bottle of red wine in the hour, only made me admire him more. There’s nothing the British like better than someone who can really drink.
What takes him a cut above the pack is a machine-gun rapid fire delivery, a sharp, cutting tongue and a deep connection to his anger. This makes for high verbal energy and a rare degree of fearlessness. He’s quite prepared to take on his audience, compliment or insult them as he pleases, for comic effect.
His account of losing friends for being a Leave-voting socialist felt genuine and actually managed to raise some proper politics, as he quickly went over why he opposed the EU. I’d have liked a lot more hardcore political philosophy at that point, as it was very original and thought-provoking and genuinely political. Better yet, he didn’t look to be consensual or co-opt the room into agreeing. and as such. was all the more grown-up and powerful. The only slightly weaker points were some of the more obvious gay sex riffs which could easily be stripped out and replaced with more biting material.
All in all, He’s a top notch laugh inducer. Buy that man a drink, or indeed, a bottle.
Steen Raskopoulos – The Coolest Kid In Competitive Chess – Underbelly – Belly Button – 20.00
This is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, kind of rock n roll sketch show with an overarching narrative the like of which, if you’ve never seen Steen before, you will not have experienced. It really is unique and completely hilarious and life-affirming as he takes audience members out to help him perform the sketches. It isn’t in the least bit cruel and all do so with good heart and soul. Clearly, the level of laughter somewhat depends on the performance of the participants, on Saturday this was superb and the room was in uproar from start to finish. Incidentally, when you’re in a room which is really honking out belly laughs, it is so different from rooms which are making the laugh noise, but don’t mean it.
The highlight of the set is surely when he gets audience members to tell a colleague what he did the previous night and subsequently how he is required to make amends. I could’ve watched that all night, so hilarious was it.
At the core of the mayhem is a performer with huge, open-hearted charisma, who is very skilful at interweaving all the sketches, so that at the end he can draw all loose ends together. Quite how he memorises all the variables which, perforce are different every night, is remarkable. Stunning stuff for which he got a well-deserved standing ovation. You really need to see this. It will gladden your heart.
The Not So Late Show With Ross & Josh – Pleasance Dome – Joker Dome – 22.45
The mock TV chat show isn’t an original idea but it is a reliable device within which to do character comedy. This is a funny mixture of Yorkshire nonsense and video adverts. As all my family are from Yorkshire, they were pushing at an open door with me. There’s some surrealism too with a talking baby as the house, band and the boys themselves were clearly having a good time, which is half the battle. There were some mistakes but in this sort of show, that almost makes things better.
The material is hit and miss on the laughs, but it is all driven on with a manic energy and plenty of fun so that even at the less hilarious moments, there’s no sense of awkwardness. A good, undemanding and sometimes funny way to finish off your evening.
Larry Dean – Fandan – Monkey Barrel – 18.40
West of Scotland comedian Larry was nominated for a newcomer award in 2015, the year I was on the Comedy Awards panel. It was well deserved because he delivered a set which was well-paced, charming and with good technique.
This years confirms that he still has all of those qualities and has added greater self-confidence to his armory. Very at home in front of a packed room, he’s instantly likeable and with a real twinkle in his eye. His funniest material is when he laughs at the Scottish people. His riffs on the contrarian nature of the country are especially funny. I’d love to see him do a whole set of Scottish-themed humour. It certainly got the biggest laughs of the evening and his ned walk was a thing of greatness. Also he’s very good at accents. His London Observational Comedian a clever little device to deploy.
If you’re at all squeamish at sexually explicit material, parts of this show might set your hair on fire but he manages to deliver some pretty graphic stuff with his trademark rather boyish charm which allows him to keep the audience on-side through a couple of weaker, less original sections.
This is a free show, but is well worth you throwing some money in the bucket at the end of it.
MARK NELSON – Irreverence – Gilded Balloon – Sportman’s 20.00
A lot of comedians understandably strive for greater depth and meaning with their comedy. They want to say something about the world and make an impact. All of which is noble enough, but a lot of the time, they don’t have anything new to say, nor good enough jokes to carry it off.
This isn’t Mark’s way at all. An experienced Glaswegian comic, he’s just there to make his audience laugh. There is no overarching narrative, no real profundity being reached for. And that’s fine because he’s a very good comedian who knows how to tell a funny story.
Yes some of those stories are rather salty and his routine about relieving his baby boy’s constipation might make some toes curl, but it’s all delivered with enough good-natured attitude to make it work.
He’s especially funny on critiquing the millennial generation and that seemed to strike a chord with the older members of the audience who laughed loudly throughout.
A safe pair of comedy hands who is a cut above the usual circuit comedians, this is a ticket which will guarantee laughs.