Gilded Balloon 30th Anniversary Gala, Edinburgh Fringe review: Johnny Vegas returns to the stage

Tommy Tiernan, Alan Davies, Adam Hills and Greg McHugh were among the stars who performed at the birthday gig

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The Independent Culture

“I have financial problems,” announced Johnny Vegas mid-way through his 15-minute return to the stage. The Lancashire comedian quit stand-up around six years ago. “But then the money goes away and you've got to pretend you've come back to stand-up because it was your first love…”

That might be the motivation behind the future return to the circuit he hinted at, but Vegas was on the bill for a different cause this weekend: a charity gala to celebrate the 30th Birthday of the Gilded Balloon.   

The Gilded Balloon is one of the Fringe's best-loved venues, home of the notorious stand-up bear pit Late 'N' Live and newcomer competition So You Think You're Funny, whose winners and finalists include Vegas, Peter Kay and Tommy Tiernan. Tim Minchin, Bill Bailey, Ross Noble, John Oliver, Daniel Kitson, Alan Carr and Jimmy Carr also got their early breaks there and a number of them returned on Saturday night to perform short sets in front of giant pictures of their youthful selves.

The show, held at the Edinburgh Playhouse to fit in a 3,000-strong sell-out crowd, was hosted, brilliantly, by Scottish favourite Fred MacAulay and The Last Leg presenter Adam Hills, who, like Noble and Kitson, started out compering Late 'N' Live.

It was a top-notch bill, though strangely for a venue run by a woman - Karen Koren - of the 22 acts (and four video messages - from Minchin, Bailey, Noble and Rich Hall) over three and a half hours, there were only two female comedians.

Both Aisling Bea and Luisa Omielan would barely have been born when the Gilded Balloon first opened its doors - a sign of changing times in comedy perhaps, which makes you wonder how many women would have made onto the bill for the 20th anniversary gala.  

First-half highlights included Stephen K Amos' routine on Scotland's racial diversity, or lack thereof, Sean Hughes' interpretative dance routine about ageing, David O'Doherty's somehow cheering song about the dark side of life and Sean Cullen's reprisal of his song “I'm the only Gay Eskimo” with Phil Nichol.

It was the return of Gary Tank Commander, much-loved Bafta-nominated creation of Greg McHugh (Fresh Meat's Howard) which brought the house down with his camp tales of life in Afghanistan (“cracking tan - perk of the job.”) and, of course, “cheesy pasta.”

The second half opened with The Boy with Tape on His Face and a supreme set from Tommy Tiernan - sporting a beard “like a ditch in winter.” I could have listened to the Irish mystic yelling about gay rights and obesity all night but Barry Cryer and Alan Davies were waiting in the wings, the latter with a self-deprecating routine about the trials of sex as an older man.

It was down to Kitson to bring some jeopardy to proceedings, which he did by accusing Koren of arson (the original Gilded Balloon burned down in 2002), flinging a Go-Pro camera that he spotted filming him into the audience and knocking over the glittery pink 30 figures on the stage. This was a bad-tempered, indulgent five minutes from Kitson, who is clearly not used to playing gigs to non-fans anymore, but it was still funny.

The anarchy continued with Vegas, who stumbled onto stage in cargo shorts and a baseball cap and began a rambling story about having tennis elbow - “the most unimpressive of afflictions.” It hasn't affected his way with words. On pugs: “they look like God is trying to pull it back through a plughole”; on his PG Tips adverts: “They called me up and said do you want to be a slag for teabags?” It was rambling, bizarre, nerve-wracking and angry – and it was good to have him back.

After that, it was hard to know where to go. Omielan's “thigh-gap routine” which has gone viral on YouTube failed to catch in the theatre, which left her clearly vexed, and Jason Byrne closed the show with a whimper. A little messy, a little over-long, perhaps but roll on the next 30 years.