The 2007 if.comedy award (i.e. the one that used to be called the Perrier) went to Brendan Burns, and he's not about to let you forget it. This year his show opens with a 2001 pastiche, a pair of sword-fighting warrior women and, finally, the arrival of Burns himself dressed as a gladiator: "Because I can!" His theme is that having won the Fringe's top award, the only way is down, so he might as well embrace it. "I'm gonna get slaughtered by the critics for this," he grins. And he might be right.
Burns is probably too hearty and rumbustious to be slaughtered. But the fact is, most comedians follow a Perrier win with a bigger and better show, so there's no excuse for lazy, fair-to-middling routines about Arnold Schwarzenegger's lack of intelligence and Australians' lack of subtlety, all peppered with swear words so they seem more controversial, and barked in a voice so loud and rasping it makes your ears buzz. For fans only.
Three of 2007's other if.comedy nominees are better value. Pappy's Fun Club, promises dark, cynical, edgy comedy. But no. It turns out that the name is very nearly sincere, and that the Fun Club's members are four clean-cut, studenty young men in jeans and T-shirts who bound through their freewheeling sketches without a moment's pause, except when they crack up at each other's improvisations. The Clubbers have been a tad over-hyped. With their joke-shop costumes and home-made cardboard props, they're more of a feelgood Fringe favourite than an outfit on the verge of major stardom.
But it's a positive sign for their future that their inspired absurdism is so distinctive: in various sketches, the performers are required to play a blue whale, the internet, the bubonic plague and the city of Nottingham. They also have the dubious honour of being fonder of male semi-nudity than any sketch troupe since Monty Python.
Another 2007 short-lister, Ivan Brackenbury, is a hapless hospital radio DJ in wonky glasses and a yellow baseball cap who always chooses the worst possible track to dedicate to his bedbound listeners: Leona Lewis's "Bleeding Love" for a haemophiliac, and so on. Ivan is also the alter ego of Tom Binns, who manages to stay in character while deftly operating two laptops and zipping through Ivan's jingles, phone calls, and "wacky wind-ups" at breakneck speed. The character could do with being developed – you get the gist after a few minutes – but it is on its way to being a classic.
The fourth and best of last year's nominees is Andrew Maxwell, a supremely confident Irish stand-up who was a bit too laid back a year ago, but who is currently on fire. Unlike some comedians, he's got plenty to talk about – a gig in a maximum security prison and two others in Belfast paramilitary bars. He also has a knack for vivid story-telling, spot-on accents, a rollicking lust for life and a stinging wit which deals with some drunken hecklers so skillfully that I half wished that the heckling had continued just so he could keep up the treatment. He's the complete package.
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