Edinburgh Festival `98:If music be the food of laughter, play on

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The Independent Culture
WE WERE crammed into what looked like pews at the Palladium in Edinburgh on Sunday night. But we weren't there to listen to a Bach oratorio or a rousing rendition of "Onward Christian Soldiers". We were instead treated to Abba's long-neglected political output. One particularly affecting song dealt with Sweden's war effort, accompanied by the tune of "SOS".

Welcome to the warped world of Bill Bailey, perhaps the only comedian who doesn't have audiences dashing for the exits the moment he picks up a musical instrument. He may look like a cross between Meatloaf and Lemmy, but appearances can be deceptive; he actually has the sensibility of the classically trained musician that he is. He can send up a 17th century piece of harpsichord music because he is skilled enough to play it in the first place.

He is a consummate creator of pastiche, able with the merest bit of tweaking to bring out, say, the hidden similarities between The Doors and the theme to "The Magic Roundabout", or the inherent absurdity in a Jethro Tull- type number. "Who stole the leg of time?", he croons in finest prog-rock fashion. "Was it the man with the key to the door of reality underneath the mat of insignificance? No."

Chris de Burgh does not emerge unscathed, either. In a wicked parody about protecting "beautiful ladies in danger", Bailey sings: "I'll save the pretty ones with their smiles and sparkling eyes/ but the ugly ones die."

He goes on to play "K-Tel's 20 Didgeridoo Hits" (which all sound suspiciously similar) and "my tribute to the 70s": a halting, tuneless version of the intro to "Stairway to Heaven", followed by a cry of: "I'll be down in a minute, mum." In what may be a first for stand-up comedy, Bailey even manages to fit in a spoof of those irritating Shakespearean troubadours who brandish mandolins and an incomprehensible sense of humour: "But soft, here follows excellent fooling. Oh, thou hast heard it."

And so never more can it be said that the arts of music and comedy get on about as well as Gazza and Glenn Hoddle.

Bill Bailey continues at the Palladium, Edinburgh until Saturday