The Fringe has its stalwarts who are so much part of the Edinburgh furniture that critics (and Perrier judges) can overlook just how talented they are. Al Murray and Rich Hall are just two who had been performing for years before they finally got the recognition they deserved. This year, Jackie Clune, 35, looks like being the breakthrough performer with Bitchin', perhaps the funniest, bravest and most accomplished show on the Fringe.
The comic chanteuse first performed at the Fringe in 1996, with her Karen Carpenter tribute – a mixture of poignant Carpenters songs and wicked stand-up – and almost every year since she's written a new show.
But last year, it looked like Clune might not perform at the Fringe again. Her performances seemed to lack her usual camp lustre. Was she bored? "I am never bored with the show, just the competitiveness and playing the media game. There are lots of new people coming up and they get the attention, and when you've been around a few years you feel that unless you masturbate in public nobody wants to know." So she went off into straight acting, playing the part of Barry's girlfriend in EastEnders and, to great critical acclaim, the lead in Bryony Lavery's latest play, A Wedding Story in the West End. "I loved it," she says. Earlier this year, with the play's run over, Clune had to decide whether to write another Edinburgh show. "I knew I wanted to, but equally I knew I didn't want to do anything fluffy. I felt I had outgrown that persona. I wanted to do a show with a bit more of me, that was a bit more grown-up. I was tired of being thought of as a glorified karaoke singer." It was while on tour with Puppetry of the Penis that the outline of Bitchin' came to her. "I started asking myself why I wasn't saying things I really believed, why I was doing all froth and no substance. Bitchin' is biting and has an edge." Well, you could say that. Bitchin' is about being a "recovering lesbian" and re-examining her sexuality – in a most provocative manner – after having a relationship with a man. And not just any man, but a gay man. You can mentally cross off the sections of the community who will find offence. The irony is that, camp as her previous shows were, Clune made little reference in them to being a lesbian, although she had a large gay following. "I didn't like talking about my private life in public and I didn't want to alienate people. Also, I hate playing to one type of audience – men who love the campness and straight people who are up for a laugh. I find now, after just a few performances, the more open I am, the more it's appealing to a broad audience."
But that has brought its own problems. "I have a slight guilt about doing it now because I just had a relationship with a man, so it makes it safe for straight people." Is she worried about alienating people with the subject matter? "One night, when I said I'd had a relationship with a man, two lesbians booed and I said, 'Don't knock it till you've tried it', and I felt crap about it immediately. I don't say lesbian relationships are rubbish, just that all relationships can be difficult." So will she be drummed out of the club? "Even when I was a really radical feminist lesbian I wore red lipstick. I've never been able to accept that set of rules."
Like all great comedy, Bitchin' is about vulnerability. "There are a lot of people who feel the same way but you're not allowed to say it out loud. It's about the nitty gritty of relationships, regardless of who does what to whom and where it goes. I mean the reason I dumped [the gay boyfriend] is because he's from Dewsbury in Yorkshire and he says 'votka' instead of vodka. I am so fucking intolerant," she says dryly. "In my own skin I feel good about this, and I hope that translates to the people watching." Then she catches herself. "But I'm too cynical to think this is my moment. I know that life is not fair." Let's hope she's wrong.
'Bitchin'': Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (0131 226 2428), to 27 AugustReuse content