The Edinburgh Festival: Comedy: And all for the price of a Clydeside puppet show

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The Independent Culture
THE Edinburgh Festival throws performers and audience together in a confined space in an atmosphere of barely suppressed hysteria. Interesting etiquette quandaries result, such as how to behave when the person who elbows you sharply to one side in their eagerness to get to the bar turns out to be someone you just paid six, seven or even eight pounds to make you laugh. Most people seem to handle this quite well, and if comedians are troubled by the knowledge that for the price of listening to them for an hour, their audience could have experienced not one but two troops of Clydeside puppeteers, they manage not to show it.

Hyperactive, straggle-headed Glaswegian (and scourge of Clydeside puppeteers) Phil Kay runs his packed house ragged at the Gilded Balloon, harrying them into pens marked laughter with an innocent joy in his own facility of a trophy-winning sheep-dog. Kay's name is not yet as familiar as it should be, partly because he continues to resist the blandishments of the big, London-based comedy agencies, but it cannot be long before this man becomes a nationwide star. At his best, Kay, like his fellow Glaswegian Billy Connolly, has the exhilarating ability to take a crowd to a place it didn't expect to go before it even knows it's left.

Kay's greatest strength lies not so much in his material - a winning blend of observational scatology and high-octane whimsy ('In Glasgow, three out of four women . . . is most of them') - as in his momentum. Only at the odd moment when one of his runaway trains of thought hits the buffers, and he looks around, blinks and says, 'Where am I?',

do you realise how fast Kay was going. His relentless physicality - whether surfing on an ironing board or racing back and forth into the audience with heroic disregard for the ensuing cat's cradle of microphone lead - just sucks the energy out of the room. 'You look a bit like me, too,' he muses at a young woman with a perm who has had the temerity to speak out of turn, 'I figure maybe you're a method heckler.'

It's funny the way well-polished London club sets have to come all the way up to Edinburgh to get noticed. 'Never rush into the act straight away,' says hazy, lazy Alan Davies (Gilded Balloon), 'no one else starts work as soon as they get there, so why should I?' This opening gambit, like much of the routine which follows, is not quite the idle banter it professes to be. For all his languid delivery, Davies has a sharp ear for the poetry of the workplace and the tensions of home and hearth. He responds with equal grace and precision to charity letters from afar ('This bloke hasn't eaten for a month, Alan') and the unreasonable behaviour of an aged relative ('Well done Gran, you have won the right to be alone').

Of this year's three Australian imports, Rachel Berger (Pleasance) is by some distance the most likeable, but not being disabled like Steady Eddie or six-feet tall and six-months pregnant like Tracey Bartram, she is not getting much attention. Berger has the rare knack of negotiating a path between the personal and the political without losing her comic balance. 'I look at Paul Keating,' she observes tellingly, 'and think maybe when they circumcised him they threw away the wrong piece?'

The influx from Down Under has taken the pressure off the Americans a bit, which is probably for the best, since it is unreasonable to expect them to supply a Denis Leary or a Bill Hicks every year. Remorselessly priapic, dome-headed Californian Robert Schimmel (Assembly) is certainly slick, if less than chivalrous. He does insist, however, on doing that annoying thing American comedians do, when they pause after every 10 or 15 jokes and say something like: 'People do a lot of weird things'.

There's being frank, and then there's being Frank. Frank Skinner's 11 shows at the Pleasance have, unsurprisingly, been about as sold out as it's possible to get. If any doubt remained that Skinner has well and truly made it in TV-land (which it doesn't), the sight of one of the women from The House of Eliott being ushered in at the front of the queue would surely be the end of it. Running in new material for a marathon autumn tour, Skinner allegedly does a different set every night. I say allegedly because that sort of behaviour could get him in a lot of trouble with his fellow comedians.

Frank is much smaller in person than he is on the telly, and also, of course, much ruder. Ejaculation is his bread and butter. It is hard to imagine even him being so saucy in front of Des Lynam. Skinner's control over a live audience is quite awesome to behold, but even he is momentarily taken aback when an extended and ruthless survey of the life histories of those reckless enough to sit in the front row unearths a former neighbour of Frederick West.

This is the sort of incident that might delight Jerry Sadowitz, if delight was a sensation to which Sadowitz had recourse. Suicidal misanthropy is more his style. He and his Tony Slattery-influenced writing partner, Logan Murray, have chosen a characteristically self-destructive vehicle for their return from career limbo. Bib & Bob (Acropolis) might be 'a working-class version of Oxbridge revue gob-shite', but parody's just another word for nothing left to say, and Sadowitz's pustulent talent really needs to stand alone to be at its most effective. People still want him to succeed though, because he hates himself even more than he hates everybody else. The shame of it is, he's got such a lovely smile.

Assembly: 031-226 2428. Pleasance: 031-556 6550. Gilded Balloon: 031-226 2151. Acropolis: 031-557 6969.