Will Durst, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

The US comic who cured my allergy to stand-up
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The Independent Culture

I start with a prejudice against stand-up comedians. Increasingly they seem to dominate the Fringe festival. Their posters are everywhere, as are their reviews. Indeed I often wonder whether they should not be hived off from the Fringe and put into a festival of their own.

I start with a prejudice against stand-up comedians. Increasingly they seem to dominate the Fringe festival. Their posters are everywhere, as are their reviews. Indeed I often wonder whether they should not be hived off from the Fringe and put into a festival of their own.

We have a successful film festival, a noted jazz festival and a prestigious book festival all running alongside the official Edinburgh International festival, the Fringe and the Military Tattoo. So why not a stand-up festival as well, leaving the Fringe to the hidden delights in drama, music and dance.

The second part of my prejudice is that most comics are in their 20s and 30s pepper their monologues with a repetitive stream of expletives while revealing alleged problems with their sex lives. Some years ago I took my 13-year-old son to hear a large lady billed as "hilarious" who never wandered far from the subject of her menstruation and has since become famous.

When I said that one young man was "unbelievably smutty" he used my quote in his advertising the next year. But then I was brought up on the brilliant soliloquies of Frankie Howerd.

I was not therefore overly excited by the advanced puff: "Ready for a hardcore rumble at the Edinburgh Festival, comes fast-talking, satirical stand-up Will Durst."

Hardcore and fast-talking he is not. True he used the "f" word a few times but only for genuine effect and then apologised for doing so too often; and as for fast-talking, on the contrary one of the delights of his technique is the contemplative pause as if he is pondering what to say next.

My prejudices were overcome. Durst provides a consistently funny and intelligent commentary on the state of America. To think of an hour more enjoyably spent currently in Edinburgh at any live performance is difficult. And that's another thing - his show is advertised for an hour at 6.50pm and lasts precisely as promised, unlike many I have attended.

He begins with an admission: He did not vote for George Bush last time but he may do this time. Pause and mischievous smile: "Why? Pure gold. Pure gold for a satirist." He doesn't even try to make it all up. We are regaled with Durst's collection of genuine sayings of Bush, Rumsfeld et al.

On weapons of mass destruction Bush blamed "faulty intelligence". "Ain't that congenital?" queries Durst. He quotes Bush at the last campaign: "Is our children learning?" And soon we get his point: He doesn't have to make things up to make us laugh. He just has to repeat what's been said, adding a wry commentary.

Thus Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, on his decision not to release full death figures in the Iraq conflict: "Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war," or another member of the administration: "We've caught a successful suicide bomber."

He reminds me of the South African Pieter-Dirk Uys who has appeared here. Both men love their countries and have been saddened by the policies of their governments. Their performances are their contribution to try to influence change.

The least successful part of Durst's hour was when he invited questions. Asked about Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 he said the political pendulum in America had swung so far to the right that the film, whatever its faults, was a necessary counterbalance. Suddenly we seemed to be in a politics class rather than at an entertainment. But the response showed that this thoughtful man cares.

Nor does he let others off lightly. The election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California he describes as "putting the mock into democracy", and he does a splendid imitation of John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, whose grinning inanities so irritated me when I attended the Democratic Conven- tion in Boston. He ought to be advertising toothpaste rather than running for high office.

As for the Democratic nominee himself, John Kerry, Durst alleges that when he walked into a stable recently the horse asked him: "Why the long face?"

This most engaging of American imports believes there is a chance to defeat Bush. He bases this on the fact he hasn't met anyone who voted Gore last time who is going to vote Bush this time whereas many previous Bush voters are switching.

On this most perceptive, clever and witty performance he deserves to be proved right. I wish I shared his confidence, but at least I felt better after a magic hour in his company.

Lord Steel of Aikwood is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats

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