Return of the freaks: The resurgence of gross-out comedy

After a 10-year absence the doyen of depravity, Jim Rose, is back on the Fringe, along with a range of other weird, wacky and downright disturbing acts.
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The Edinburgh Fringe has long been synonymous with the weird and the wonderful, where something off-the-wall is as likely to be on the stage as on the street. Edinburgh in August is a place where the freaks come out, and are encouraged to do so; it is a cabaret, and all that loose and inclusive word entails.

Though the city's streets seem more likely now to be adorned with promotional posters for comedians than jugglers or fire-eaters, the recent burlesque renaissance has added to the diversity, and perhaps even the perversity, of the Fringe.

Further back, a plethora of alternative circuses added colour and curiosity to the event, including Circus Oz, Archaos, and the Jim Rose Circus, which is back at the Fringe after 10 years, and which influenced a generation of freakery with Rose's predilection for power tools, and acts who could lift weights with their genitals, drink their bodily fluids, and so forth.

Since the re-emergence of burlesque, freakshow or sideshow acts are more likely to be done by someone in a tutu than in leathers. Sword-swallower Amy Saunders, aka Miss Behave, was a Rose acolyte and worked with the hardcore fetish act Kamikaze Freakshow, but she believes that the woodwork has creaked for freaks: "People don't really want to be grossed out and made squeamish, people want a good time – if that's a burlesque night or a banging techno night," says Saunders, who is about to have a month-long cabaret residency at the Roundhouse, London.

Earlier this week, the if.comedy producer and director Nica Burns delivered her traditional exuberant speech at the if.comedy awards lunch. With comedy now officially the biggest genre at the Fringe, Burns pointed out that: "We are all so busy beavering away in our own little corner that we are not really aware of what's actually happening with the rest of the programme: music, kids, dance, physical theatre, street performances, all that stuff out there, on the high street, on the Mound, all those things that make up the mix of what is Edinburgh."

Even if the playing field is not quite level when it comes to freakery, this has not stopped performers taking a walk on the wilder side, and bringing strange sights and sounds to curious Fringe audiences. The Spiegeltent, in particular, has put "alternative cabaret" back on the map. The Spiegeltent and those like it give a sense of what the 1980s alternative comedy/ cabaret scene was like, and the kinds of acts that were mingling with stand-ups.

Ultimately, comedy owes cabaret a debt for helping it find its feet. Whether that debt can be repaid, for example in terms of the reconnection that Nica Burns is hinting at, remains to be seen, but if it is, it will be for the better of both the genres.

Miss Behave's Variety Nighty, The Roundhouse, London, to 24 August (0844 482 8008)

Barry & Stuart

They may sound as though they should be in a sketch by the Absolutely comedy sketch group, but Barry and Stuart are in fact a vaudevillian act fusing "bizarre" magic and comedy. Consequently, like any magic crossover act, they are hard to pigeonhole. The categorisation conundrum comes despite stunts involving one pulling a mobile phone from the other's chest, and both using knives to lacerate themselves. Even with the obligatory diet of razor blades, the duo are still more likely to be found in a comedy club than in a sideshow, though they acknowledge that even there they can't be fully at home.

Despite small-screen exposure on Channel 4 shows Dirty Tricks and Magic, this is their first Edinburgh Fringe. It's fitting perhaps that, as magicians, they would invert the normal trend.

Underbelly, to 24 August (0844 545 8252)

Jim Rose

Jim Rose's Fringe offering is based on the story of an Eighties stadium-rock cover-band who wind up dead. Finding heaven not to their debauched tastes, the band try to get to hell, where Satan, played by Rose, will decide on their fate.

"You will see stuff you have never seen before," promises Satan's Earthbound, off-stage persona. This includes a girl doing a quick change by pulling her top out of her vagina and her pants out of her backside, while another girl shoots blue paint from her body over a canvas. The latter's act is rather wince-making, but such a spectacle is not enough to save one of the more anticipated returns to the Fringe.

Udderbelly's Pasture, to 25 August(0844 545 8252)

Wild Card Kitty

Amid the purveyors of gross-out, Wild Card Kitty will be appearing in, and programming, The Bongo Club's "anarchic" cabaret night. "We had someone once who juggled real pigs' heads; half the audience left and someone threw up," recalls Kitty (real name Cat). One of Wild Card Kitty's acts is "Kafkaesque Burlesque", where, dressed as a cockroach, she reverses the metamorphosis by changing back into human form and then bathes in toxic waste.

The Bongo Club, Holyrood Road, to 24 August, not Fridays or Saturdays (0131-558 7604)

Captain Frodo: the incredible rubber man

The Norwegian contortionist Frodo Sandven, now resident in Melbourne, Australia, will be known to viewers of the BBC's When Will I Be Famous? for his trademark act of folding himself through the head of a tennis racket. Frodo is a mainstay of La Clique, a "melange of cabaret, new burlesque, circus and contemporary vaudeville" housed in Edinburgh by The Famous Spiegeltent, and was once a member of Circus Oz. Like Miss Behave, Sandven was once part of The Kamikaze Freak Show, much less a family show than Circus Oz. Born with the rare genetic affliction called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which means that the collagen in the body doesn't function properly but enables greater flexibility, Sandven decided to use this as a strength and toured with his father, a magician, before going solo. He has used experiences from those early days in his shows to weave a fantastical narrative around his act. Among his other skills is playing the saw, an instrument that gives a suitably eerie and haunting sound, and one that was popularised in the macabre comedy film Delicatessen.

La Clique, The Spiegel Gardens, to 30 August (0131-667 8940)

Sideshow: The Weirdest Show on Earth

"Sideshow is the freakshow side of circus", explains ringmaster and promoter Paul L Martin, "a touch of Coney Island, a touch of the bizarre. Compared to Jim Rose we're not going to shock or upset anybody, but it's about giving the kids what they want – and they want something a bit weird and something that's going to gross them out a bit."

Martin, who started as a drag artist and has been in the cabaret business for nearly two decades, offers more a "middle England" freakshow compared to Rose's "definitely not middle-America" depravity-fest.

"In our show tonight" said Martin, before I saw it at its former London home within The Arts Theatre, "you'll see a transvestite shove a screwdriver up his nose, put a mousetrap on his tongue, a bear trap on his hand, and then floss with a balloon. There's also a tap-dancing juggler, a woman dressed as a sheep doing 'baa-lesque', and a deaf woman signing to pop songs."

Martin promises that things can only get weirder during the debut Festival run: "There is a buzz about cabaret, variety, and especially circus, going on all over the country at the moment and it seemed right that Edinburgh would be the place to set out our stall."

Underbelly, to 24 August (0844 545 8252)

The Tiger Lillies

Well-known for their macabre opera Shockheaded Peter, The Tiger Lillies are an "accordion-driven anarchic Brechtian street-opera trio performing their unique mix of falsetto crooning, strange gypsy music". Their Edinburgh show this year, a reprise of the Seven Deadly Sins show staged at The New Players Theatre earlier this year, features gruesome ditties that chronicle the depraved adventures of Punch and Jude, featuring sex, drugs and violence in puppet and lyrical form. Having graduated from the unofficial university of cabaret, the group provide a freak soundscape rather than having to resort to impaling themselves for their "dark art".

The Spiegel Garden, to 30 August (0131-667 8940)