Comedy: The surreally useful shows

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The Independent Culture
Peepolykus, Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, Universal

Grinding Wheel, Jason Byrne, Arj Barker, Johnny Vegas

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

I have seen the future of comedy, and it is daft. Imagination has replaced observation. Props, music, and non-sequiturs are required; any kind of message is not. See a few shows at this year's Fringe and you'll get the impression that stand-up comedy is on the way out, and run-around, juggle, and dress-up-as-a-baby comedy is on the way in. Good news if you like Dadaist slapstick. Bad news if you've got the job of trying to describe the bloody stuff.

The setters of the trend are Reeves and Mortimer, Paul Morocco - king of the Spanish guitar and the soft fruit - and human cartoons The Right Size (back this year in Brecht's Mr Puntilla & His Man Matti at the Traverse Theatre). Of the newish proponents, they don't come much better than Peepolykus (Pleasance), three ingenious circus school graduates whose "devised physical comedy" has none of the naffness that that self-applied label might suggest.

Their sublimely ridiculous show, Horses For Courses, is effectively one long sketch about "an evening of Siberian cultural entertainment". But what begins as a parody of an amateurish Eastern European theatre group, floundering through its programme of Cossack dancing and Chekhovian costume drama - "The Tragic and Most Horrible Suicide of the Old Man" - soon slides into anarchy. One minute we're being taught basic Russian vocabulary; the next, the trio are throwing potatoes at each other. What makes it so exquisite is that you can't see the joins. The progression from the phrase book to the food fight seemed entirely natural at the time.

Peepolykus's work could never translate to TV (although there is doubtless a Channel 5 executive somewhere hoping to fit their clowning into a game show about cars), so you should see them today if you want your faith in the live medium restored. And no, at no point do they refer to horses, or indeed courses.

A similar, if less energetic, brand of mayhem comes courtesy of the up- and-coming Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding (Pleasance), who spend quite enough time on Channel 5 as it is. The Mighty Boosh is their sort-of play/sort- of revue about two zookeepers lost in a forest, their Conradian predicament lightened only by a debate on the merits of jazz and a machine that collects women's tears for use as a milkshake flavouring. The obvious word is Pythonesque, plus whichever adjective is derived from Reeves and Mortimer: Barratt has the mind of Bob Mortimer in the body of Jarvis Cocker, while Fielding can't open his mouth without a stream of Reevesian nonsense spewing out.

But again, the random silliness always seems to have its own logic and is all the funnier because it occurs within the conventions of a play. Barratt may talk about suckling a baby mammoth he discovered in his fridge, but the key point is that he acts as if it really matters. It's this human element, however warped, that Reeves and Mortimer don't have.

The highly clever Universal Grinding Wheel (Pleasance) presents a series of bizarre murder-mystery-medical-spy playlets which leave no B-movie cliche untwisted. For instance: two men are onstage. Enter a third man in a hooded red suit, fringed with white fur. He points a revolver. "I've got a present for you two," he snarls. "That's funny," grunts one of his targets, with insouciant sarcasm. "You don't look like Santa Claus." They've got the potential to be nearly as brilliant as the title of their show, I Don't Know If You're Familiar With The Voodoo Phenomenon of ZOMBIE, But ...

Just in case you think it's only comedy teams who are unicycling down the multi-coloured road of surrealism, I should mention Jason Byrne (Pleasance), who believes that there is no reason for a stand-up to limit himself to a microphone and a mic stand when he could be mucking around with a cagoule, a skipping rope, a pair of pants and half a dozen rubber hands on sticks. Byrne is a hyperactive young Irishman who gets just three words into each joke before being distracted by the sight of a girl in the audience with sunglasses on her head. He giggles at her for a while, restarts his original joke and then notices someone else to giggle at. He is a trainee Phil Kay - but he's nowhere near the end of his course.

My main objection is that he has said that the improvised nature of his act makes it "dangerous", but I'm not sure that stand-up can be dangerous unless you're on a tightrope over a pool of piranhas. Besides, his spontaneous jokes quite often consist of his jumping in the air, putting on a funny voice, or saying "Ooh fuck" whenever someone in the audience says something he doesn't expect.

A more effective cross-over between stand-up and the far-out comes from San Francisco's Arj Barker (Pleasance), a true alchemist who takes base observational material and transmutes it into comedy gold. You can see how you might be able to squeeze a joke out of a "Cruelty Free" label on a bar of soap, but only Barker would conclude that joke with the line, "Mother Loofah, know that your children are safe to play among the slip resistant pads". Or at least, only Barker would act the line with such conviction.

He is unsettlingly good. The expertise with which he flips from being languid and casual to being completely deranged can be sinister (dangerous, even), and his jokes always have an undercurrent of sly callousness. He may be sad about breaking up with a philosopher ("She doesn't even know I exist. And what's more, she an prove it."), but he's not going to get maudlin.

"I'm 27. I'm in showbusiness," he shrugs. "If things go well, my wife hasn't even been born yet." There's no way he can avoid being a megastar in the near future.

Finally, let us rejoice in the return of Johnny Vegas (Gilded Balloon), spiritual winner of last year's Perrier, and the only comedian who can make you laugh, cry, and make you a nice jug. Possibly the most indescribable of indescribable comedians, Vegas bawls the story of how fame, fortune and a sponsorship deal with Hob Nobs have changed him whereas, in fact, he hasn't changed a bit. The ingredients which made him a hit are all here: the potter's wheel, the communal singing and, best of all, his wonderful swipes at the audience. Where else are paying customers actually honoured to be picked on?

Pleasance (0131 556 6550); Gilded Balloon (0131 226 2151).

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