The fringe frontline: best and worst

In a final dispatch from the fringe frontline, Johann Hari looks at the best and worst of a frenzied festival
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The Independent Culture

In my string of features about the Edinburgh Festival, I have given the impression that this manic eruption of comedy and dance and theatre is dedicated to stimulating the intellect. But, in its gnarled, tobacco-choked heart, it is not really about that.

No, it is about eating improbable items fried in batter (pineapple, anyone?); waking up to find strangers sleeping on your floor; and watching comedy so funny it makes you vomit up a mouthful of that batter-filled poison. It is about pursuing a programme of binge-entertainment where you gulp down six shows a day and dismiss sleep as a lost luxury. Now I don't want to tell you about the shows that made my brain whirr. I want to tell you about the shows that made me laugh and cry and puke.

I love Simon Amstell. He is the laconic, awkward interviewer from Popworld, and he has a stand-up show at the Pleasance essentially about the difficulty of being a nice person. He opens by discussing the new wheelchair-bound Barbie, supposedly available in all toy-shops near you. "She is only Barbie whose legs can bend. This makes her slightly less disabled than all the other Barbies." She is still as thin as her sisters though: "You can imagine the Barbie bosses saying, 'It's one thing having a cripple, but we won't have a fattie. That would be disgusting.'"

Amstell illustrates the old dictum that "comedy equals tragedy plus time" by reminding his audience that "Richard Pryor set himself on fire and talked about it on stage, and a lot of people think he's one of the greatest comedians in history... Today, a lot of people think Jimmy Carr is funny. But imagine how funny he would be on fire." The thought of that smug, puckered, bigoted little face going up in flames triggers spontaneous applause.

I love Nick Doody, another Pleasance stand-up who twists this old comedy-tragedy equation in his act. "Joan of Arc was a paranoid schizophrenic but she has a school named after her down the road from me. Paranoid schizophrenia plus time equals primary schools. So in 200 years , will there be the Peter Sutcliffe City Academy?" Doody is like a drunken, gagged-up Richard Dawkins, brilliantly shooting down superstitions with songs and sucker-punch-lines. "When she was about 20 my mother-in-law was put in a sanatorium in Ireland because she was an atheist," he explains. "Can you imagine being put in a sanatorium because you're not hearing voices?" He has the best comic critique of the Bush administration I've seen, saying it is ludicrous to insult Bush because he can't speak properly. "If you dismiss him for his speech patterns, you are missing a whole tsunami of evil. It's just as well Hitler didn't have a lisp or everyone would joke about that and forget, oh, the Holocaust."

He punctures Bush's idea that Islamists attack America "because they hate our freedoms", saying: "If they're this pissed off about our freedoms, I hope they don't find out we've been bombing their countries. They'll be livid." He does, however, come out in favour of an immediate invasion of Iran. "Seriously. They must invade Iran. American troops are already overstretched, so if they do take on Ahmadinejad, there won't be any US troops left in the US itself - and at that point Mexico should invade. Imagine how the soldiers would feel, getting back from Iran and being told: 'Ola, senor. We have some boring sub-minimum wage drudgery for you to do for the rest of your lives.'"

I love Luke Wright, Poet Laureate. Ordinarily, I view performance poetry with the same excitement and glee with which I would greet a diagnosis of bowel cancer. But Wright offers the rarest of Edinburgh phantasms - a show you leave with more energy than when you entered. He is the 27-year-old sexy, super-smart founder of Aisle 16, the poetry boy-band who are saving poetry from slow ossification. This solo show - where he mixes adrenaline-drenched poetry with stand-up style banter - has a simple premise: he is campaigning to be made Poet Laureate. Andrew Motion, he says, "is a bit of a lame duck anyway now he's said he's going." He reads from the pancreas-churning 21st birthday "rap" for Prince William to demonstrate that Motion was always an excruciating choice. The alternative is to make the laureateship a real job - chosen by the public, independent of the Crown, and paid a real wage. He demonstrates why he should fill this refurbished post with a string of intense (and intensely funny) performances of his poems, including the glorious 'Truly, Madeley, Deeply," a love-poem to Richard Madeley. Somebody, please - buy Elizabeth Windsor a ticket.

And there was more I loved. Josie Long is the most strangely beautiful stand-up I have ever seen, serving up a long streak of pure distilled whimsy as she jabbers about trying to make nervous connections in crowded cities that demand blank anonymity at all times. And Mark Watson is a comic alchemist, turning the dull leaden banalities of our everyday environment into glittering laughter. "I saw a poster for Mission Impossible III yesterday," he says dryly, "and I thought, it's not really impossible if he's already done it twice."

But did you really think I could write an article that was a pure love letter of joy? No, dear reader, I must tell you what I hated too, and my hatred is deep. I despised the critically acclaimed Allegiance at the Assembly Rooms. It's the creepy Catholic writer Mary Kenny's take on a real meeting between Winston Churchill and the Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins. To be fair to Kenny, it takes a startling talent to write about Churchill, the greatest wit of the 20th century (as well as the first advocate of gassing the Kurds), meeting the eye-bleedingly eloquent Collins, and to make it as dull and clunky as this. But the dramatic sludge of the play was dragged even further into the abyss by the performance of the ex-comedian Mel Smith, who repeatedly stepped out of his character to laugh about his lines and to acknowledge mobile phones ringing in the audience. Short of actually turning to the audience and gurning, he could hardly have been less professional.

But nothing stoked the embers of my hate like Reginald D Hunter's show, Pride and Prejudice and Niggas. He is not incompetent like Kenny. From the moment he prowls on stage, talking in a charismatic African-American burr, he shimmers with stage presence, and his comic timing is sharp enough to burst balloons. He looks at his audience and says that he's been accused of a lot of things, including blasphemy.

"Well, let me tell you what blasphemy is. It's the idea there's a superior being who can make the mountains, the oceans and the skies, but who still gets upset about something I said. He's an all-powerful being, he's just got self-esteem issues."

Then he says: "I have been accused of anti-Semitism." I saw him the night a press bush-fire broke out about his jokes on Holocaust denial. "Well, I have a new joke I've been working on for two years, and it's not really finished and I probably shouldn't show it to you, but here goes." He pauses, and then says one word: "Jews." Another pause. "That's it, that's the joke." Part of the audience roars; part of it remains conspicuously quiet, and he chides this section for being "hung up". He says he is not anti-Semitic, and just criticises Jews because they are "a privileged group".

Here's the problem. Hunter squanders his real, swollen talents on reiterating smelly little prejudices - against Jews, women and gays - all the while puffing himself up with the conviction that he is being terribly brave to "take on" these groups. Even his jokes about Jews look soft next to his comments about women, which he prefaces by insisting: "I don't hate women any more than the average woman does." He then asks why men should be grateful to their mothers: "Should we say - thank you for opening your legs and letting me out?" He wonders why his girlfriend doesn't like being told about her "fat ass", calling women "insane". He then explains: "Civilisation couldn't have arisen without rape. A caveman goes up to a woman and language hasn't been developed yet. He could try to make sounds into language but that will take a thousand years, so he picks up a rock." That's it - there's no punchline. Just a creepy "comic" rationale for rape.

Reginald D Hunter is a black Bernard Manning, locating his audience's ugliest side and giving it a rough massage. He almost seems to be deliberately pandering to a racist stereotype - the black man who belittles rape and attacks Jews.

Yet not even a double bill of Allegiance and Hunter could wash the taste of Edinburgh-flavoured glee out of my mouth. I love the menu of comedy-in-batter on offer in this wild city on a hill, and even when you stumble across something repellent, there are always another 500 shows to see straight after it, and a Fringe programme screaming out for you to cut back on sleep and laugh, laugh, laugh.

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