COMEDY / Oldie but golden

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A MAN in a gold-patterned waistcoat is perched on a barstool. His relaxed musings are punctuated with confidential questions: 'Isn't it irritating when . . ? Have you ever noticed how . . ?' This is the archetype of stand-up comedy, embodied by Barry Cryer (Assembly) in his show, 'That Reminds Me . . .'. Elsewhere in Edinburgh, there seems to be a move among comics away from such conventional stand-up. But if it were all as accomplished as this, they wouldn't need to bother.

Cryer recites gags like a monk intoning psalms in the Middle Ages - which may be when some of his material was written. He is defensive about his oldie status - stressing, slightly desperately, his links with younger comics such as Paul Merton and Armando Iannucci - but he has no need to be. The Las Vegas routine - he even sings - may be old-fashioned, but it's funny.

Which is more than can be said for what goes on in Malcolm Hardee's front-room (Brandon St), where last Tuesday an audience of 11 people gathered for 'I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake'. Tip-toeing past the front-door of the neighbouring solicitor who is trying to block the show, you are ushered in to find our hero sloshing around in the bath. Seated in an armchair a la Ronnie Corbett and sporadically interrupted by the doorbell, the now-clothed Hardee delivers a rambling autobiography, much of it concerning the time he allegedly spent in prison with Bernie the Bolt. But once the novelty of the setting has worn off, this is just tired sit-down comedy, a case of 'never mind the content, feel the gimmick'. On Tuesday, this proved a particular disappointment to two Antipodean Mercury fans who'd come expecting a tribute to their hero.

In his quest to break with standard stand-up, Harry Hill takes on a different persona altogether: that of a science lecturer - complete with whiteboard and microscopes. 'Eggs' (Pleasance) is shaped by shapelessness, as Hill throws in random allusions to obscure celebrities and glories in ephemera. In a typically surreal moment, he gets a member of the audience to read out gourmet recipes. Vic Reeves has a lot to answer for.

Lee Evans (Assembly) gives a more assured performance as an unsure stand-up, learning his craft from a 'How To Be a Comic' record which advises him on leaning on the mike- stand, cheeky waves and the way to say 'mother-in-law'. A semiotician might claim he was deconstructing the stand-up, but don't let that put you off. Frequently stopping to towel himself down, Evans gives an electrifying, exhausting performance - crossing the physical expressiveness of Norman Wisdom with the imagination of Robin Williams. Channel 4's commissioning editor for comedy was spotted in the audience. Watch that screen.

Television stardom also beckons for Schneider and Iannucci (Assembly), prime- movers behind Radio 4's On the Hour. About to be beamed up to BBC2, they are boldly going where no stand-up has been before. Their surrealism is lassooed and rounded up within a tight structure to produce a dazzling mixture of the brainy (references to Theophile Gaultier) and the brawny (tag-wrestling with a table). I've seen this show three times now, and it still seems fresh.

Fresh is also how you might term Lea de Laria (Assembly). In 'Muff Diva' she camps it up as a 'professional lesbian' with knobs on (literally, when she produces a double-ended dildo). Attitude emanating from every inch of her boxy two-tone suit, she takes the stage thrusting her pelvis and is soon leading the men in the audience in a chant of 'I am a lesbian'. Between smoky blues songs, delivered - as it were - straight, she uses her 'gay-dar' antenna to locate and victimise heterosexuals. Tory backbenchers might describe her as the Dyke from Hell. She's in-your-face, but who cares, when your face is convulsed by laughter?

Notebook, page 18