One of the best surprises for me at this year's Fringe was Jason Byrne's show – an odd confession, I know, given that Byrne is a former Perrier nominee who has been selling out at Edinburgh for a decade. I gave up on him long ago, when I decided that his much-vaunted improvisation amounted to a hyperactive man-child charging around the venue and swearing at people. It just wasn't my cup of tea. But I'm embarrassed that it's taken me so many years to give him another chance, because Byrne now has one of the strongest stand-up sets on the Fringe. Yes, he's still shouty and sweary, and yes, he's prone to bending double with laughter at his own off-the-cuff gags. But now he's got the routines to match the hurricane energy – raucous, self-flagellating tales of school sports days and shoplifting from Tesco. I think what's changed is that there's now a scathing, embittered edge to Byrne's persona – apparently sharpened by the stresses of marriage and parenthood – which balances his natural exuberance. I don't know if the passing years have made him any happier, but they've definitely made him funnier.
Tim Minchin is in a bad mood, too, although you wouldn't know it at first. A bohemian buccaneer with bare feet, drainpipe jeans, a frilly shirt and eyeliner, Minchin enters to a backing tape of deafening rock-opera, and proceeds to play a witty song on the grand piano about anti-ginger prejudice. You'd think him the kind of consummate entertainer who would win over everyone – and he almost is. But, as evinced by the walk-outs when I saw him, a vein of radical atheism in his material makes him as controversial as any comedian. Highlights of a rip-roaring show are a nine-minute beat poem railing against new-age superstition, while commenting on his need to rail against it, and a hyper-rational ballad about the mundane realities of love which is still deeply romantic. Wrapped in the showmanship of the Mighty Boosh is the musicianship of Jools Holland. And wrapped in that is the incisive thinking of Richard Dawkins.
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