This is a show of three halves. Genial landlord Al Murray introduces the vital underlying theme of pub-speak as met aphor for world affairs ('When will Guinness and Murphy's be served side by side? This madness has got to end'). Harry Hill, whose bumbling, specky demeanour belies a wit as sharp as his sideburns, delivers a savagely polished stand-up set. And then the Pub Band, 'genetically engineered pub musicians who drink from the lager of life' (ie. Hill in pompadour wig, his diminutive 'adopted son' Alan on keyboards and a beat-perfect Murray on drums) bring the proceedings to a rousing climax.
Their set includes a telling Chas'n'Dave-style assault on Blur's popular hit song 'Girls and Boys' (complete with Hill on spoons) and, for one night only, Frank Skinner's demonic take on Tom Jones's 'Delilah'. You can't see the joins now in Hill's cut-and-paste comedy. His daring conceptual leaps are all the more dramatic for being punctuated with the familiar marks of stand-up consensus. 'Back me up on this,' he urges disingenuously '. . . what are the chances of that happening?' Anyone upset by Hill's cruel and insensitive treatment of his adopted son Alan, dubbed 'Jockey to the Aphids', should be aware that it was the little fellow's idea.
When Vic Reeves put vaudeville back on the agenda, he did us all a service. Graham Fellows' John Shuttleworth (Pleasance) is the product of an unholy union between John Major and Jim Bowen. He might be a bit too cosy for comfort with his songs on the Yamaha organ - 'You're like Manchester: I love you' - and his life's impoverished tapestry of wife Mary, sole agent Ken Worthington and day-trips to the plague village of Eyam. In the end though, there is something genuinely disturbing about Shuttleworth. His skin is just too tightly stretched over his face, and there is acute pathos in his doomed efforts to reconcile environmental concern with the demands of everyday life: 'He should have the world at his feet, but he's got it on his shoulders.'
Nineteen-year-old Sir Bernard Chumley (Gilded Balloon) is a man with a mission: to take the debased currency of the theatrical anecdote into the gutter, where it belongs. This, with the aid of a chuckle saucy enough to make Kenneth Williams blush, is exactly what he does. Jenny Eclair's dirty mouth has a more serious polemical justification. Her Bad Behaviour Show (Pleasance) not only makes a convincing case for women behaving as badly as men in the interests of equality, it is also an object lesson in organising gags under a conceptual umbrella. A vision in spandex, Eclair swigs Strongbow and is authentically scabrous while undelivered invitations to her daughter's birthday party spill from her handbag. Serves the ungrateful wretch right. Giving birth gave her mum 'labia like spaniels' ears'.
The Right Size (Pleasance) are a much more genteel pleasure. The only thing wrong with their hour-long physical comedy show is its title, Stop Calling Me Vernon, which suggests the worst whimsical excesses of student revue, whereas what dynamic duo Hamish McColl and Sean Foley actually do is classic cultured slapstick. With its beautiful visual jokes, committed acting and dream-like theme song, this is not just a show for those twisted individuals who think Jacques Tati is funny, it's for everyone.
Outnumbered this year are straight-down-the-line stand-up comedians, but skilled and genial Londoner John Moloney (Gilded Balloon II) manages to occupy the middle ground between Billy Bragg and Jeremy Hardy without straying into self-righteousness. He also has a great Ian Paisley joke, but sadly it's unprintable. The three rising stars of Young, Gifted
& Green (Gilded Balloon II) play the green card right down to their choice of incidental music - the Pogues. 'I've only been Irish since I moved to England last October,' says lizard-eyed guitar-picker Dermot Carmody, 'back home there didn't seem to be much point.'
Boothby Graffoe (Pleasance) is not just the only comedian in Edinburgh to be named after a Lincolnshire village, he is also the only one to make jokes about combine harvesters and sing a lullaby. As well as crowd-control instincts honed over six months as a Butlin's redcoat, Graffoe has a keen visual sense - employing a shaven head and coat-hanger shoulders to striking effect - and a well-tuned guitar. His exhaustive survey of children's playgrounds also makes for the simplest and arguably the most effective of this year's bumper crop of slide shows.
Pirouetting on the cusp of comedy and one-woman theatre, Marga Gomez (Assembly) is a beguiling performer. Her Memory Tricks is a funny and moving 90-minute reminiscence of an unusual Brooklyn childhood, focusing on Gomez's relationship with her mother, an exotic, not to say quixotic, dancer of Hispanic descent. The appreciative male laughter which greets this compelling piece of multiple characterisation gives way to appreciative female laughter at Gomez's late-night stand-up show Pretty, Witty and Gay. The title is part West Side Story tribute, part Oprah intro, and Gomez maps a changing psychological landscape with style and grace. 'Remember Club Incognito?' she asks nostalgically, 'Club Secrets? Places where you could be proud to be a lesbian.'
Pleasance: 031-556 6550. Gilded Balloon: 031-226 2151. Gilded Balloon II: 031-223 6520.
Assembly: 031-226 2428.