Mime artists sweep awards in Edinburgh

Comics give another meaning to the phrase speechless with laughter
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The Independent Culture

Maybe stand-up comedians have said all there is to be said. After more than three decades of whimsical observations and angry rants dominating the comedy scene, the industry's biggest award was yesterday won by a modern-day mime artist.

Doctor Brown said the title of his winning show, Befrdfgth, speaks for itself. Yet for 60 minutes he uttered not a word, and only one or two sounds, as he took his audience on a surreal journey from curtain-dwelling beast to bull-slaying matador, via voyeurism and crucifixion. He even managed to crack audience participation without making it an ordeal. His efforts were yesterday rewarded with the £10,000 Foster's Best Comedy Show Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Previous winners of the award (formerly known as the Perrier award) include Steve Coogan, Frank Skinner and Harry Hill.

Brown is a different sort of comic. A striking, heavily bearded figure who is always casually dressed and is never seen in public without a baseball cap, his real name is Philip Burgers and he refuses to give his age; he studied at Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris, the drama and performance art school where the Ali G creator, Sacha Baron Cohen, studied after leaving Cambridge.

Nica Burns, producer of the Foster's awards, said: "Doctor Brown's show starts with fun pranks and then takes the audience on a roller-coaster, from inspired lunacy to pulling your heartstrings. He can express emotion with a gesture, a look or an eyebrow. A breathtakingly brilliant clown with enormous charisma."

Brown starts the show behind a black curtain, from where he kicks audience members as they come in and from whom he steals jackets and bags; they have to retrieve their possessions from his hiding places. Later, as a bull, he "impregnates" a female member of the audience and performs a self-crucifixion which keeps going wrong. His character is a sort of Lord of Misrule or a malevolent Mr Bean. Indeed, the comic acknowledges his debt to Rowan Atkinson, saying that he is one of his comedy heroes.

An audience member – who is absolutely not a plant, Doctor Brown and his producers say – provides the denouement of the show, which is meta-comedy as its best.

Brown also does a more innocent children's show, and says his aim is for everybody to discover their inner child through comedy. "You can't entertain kids with word gags, so I use performance," he said after his win. "And why not with adults? We all need to have fun, and my shows do that. The aim is to be as silly as possible."

This year's fringe has been awash with wordless and high-concept shows. The panel prize – a special award in the gift of the judging panel of critics and comedy producers, for a show "in the spirit of the fringe" – was given to Sam Wills, 33, for his show The Boy with Tape on his Face. The New Zealander started as a street performer in Edinburgh six years ago, was nominated as a newcomer for his first stage show at the fringe last year, and this year has sold out a 700-seat venue every night. The show is also mime, performed with an extensive range of home-made props.

Daniel Simonsen, 29, whose observational comedy Champions won best newcomer, is a Norwegian with a Chilean father and is the first winner of any Edinburgh comedy award whose mother tongue is not English. He says his comedy has to be more observational for a British audience, but that speaking another language is not a problem. "It's just that my voice comes from a different part of my mouth," he said after winning the award.