Theatre: On Comedy In Edinburgh - May the Force be funny

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The Independent Culture
By the time you read this, the Perrier award panel will have come to a decision and I'll no longer be receiving death threats from insane comedy promoters. As I write, though, we've still got a day of debate to go, so here's another award instead. The 10 runners-up for Most Ubiquitous Comic Subject Matter are, in ascending order: Sean Connery, Brummies, Geri Halliwell, John F Kennedy Jr, feng shui, the Gay Xchange phoneline commercial, the Moon landings, Australians, Americans and the eclipse. But the winner, by a clear margin, is ... Star Wars! Tony Blair can rest easy. The most salient issue in Britain at the end of the 1990s is whether Jar Jar Binks ruins The Phantom Menace.

But the only tactic that is painfully over-used this year is mockery of those in the audience from other countries (and Birmingham). Indeed, I'd prefer to hear less about the audience in general. It's always impressive to see a comic spin off jokes from the clothes of someone foolish enough to sit in the front row. Several comedians, such as Al Murray and Ross Noble, have turned this into an art form. But often, as with the charmingly rumpled Andy Robinson (Pleasance), the badinage can make the show seem like one long warm-up routine before the arrival of the star attraction. After an hour of watching Jason Byrne (Pleasance) trying on people's coats, chasing anyone who goes to the toilet and generally proving how stultifyingly predictable some so-called unpredictable comedy can be, you grow to appreciate shows that are conceived, written and polished well before the audience shuffles into the theatre.

Terry Alderton (Assembly), for instance, constructs a rounded revue from cleverly deployed impersonations (he did one of four Chewbacca impressions I've seen this month), agile physical comedy (Londoners, he insists, can't talk without robotic body-popping) and carefully timed lighting changes and music. He is a mainstream, working-men's-club entertainer - and this accounts for the best and worst attributes of his act. On the plus side, he is one of the hardest-working comics on the Fringe. The downside to his being so ripe for Des O'Connor is that he has no qualms about using old jokes and older stereotypes. It's not yet clear whether Alderton is just Jim Davidson with talent. What is clear is that from now on his rise will be swift and unstoppable.

As an antidote to some of Alderton's cornier material, see Omid Djalili (Pleasance) - currently most famous for being eaten alive by beetles in The Mummy. His show, a "Middle Eastern ceilidh", is an educational insight into Persian culture. It's also tremendous fun - if not always tremendously funny. Djalili doesn't come across as a comedian as such, but as an actor and impressionist who reminisces amusingly about his boyhood as an Iranian Londoner and his adulthood as "king of the ethnic bit-parts".

Djalili's show would be considerably poorer without his sidekick, who plays some wonderful music on an instrument that's a cross between a zither and a canoe. Sean Cullen (Pleasance) was similarly astute in his choice of partner: he has found someone who can contribute sensitive acoustic guitar accompaniment - and can dress up as Darth Maul when the occasion arises. And with Cullen, you can bet the occasion will arise. A rambling surrealist in the Eddie Izzard vein, he has the benign, gentle coaxing manner of a priest on Thought for the Day. It's just that his thoughts happen to be about chimpanzees and having a fight with the pope.

His worm-in-a-bow-tie outfit would win him the award for Best Costume if it weren't for Marcus Brigstocke (Gilded Balloon), who is transformed for one sketch into a streetwise baby on his mother's back. Brigstocke's show is a series of vignettes about therapy and New Age psychobabble. Populated by counsellors, patients and the no-holds-barred feng shui champion, the show is nicely observed and well acted, but it falls into the trap of any comedy about fads: the material can seem obvious and dated even before it's written. Still, the costumes are worth the ticket fee. To dress up as a mountain-top guru is one thing, but to dress up as the mountain as well is something else.

A final point about theatrical shows, as opposed to improvised stand- up, is that they have the potential to go disastrously, embarrassingly, chaotically wrong. This is what happens to Count Arthur Strong and Terry Titter (Gilded Balloon), two scabrous, dipsomaniac light entertainment has-beens who deliver a lecture on showbiz; and to The Arthur Dung Show (Gilded Balloon), a "very serious, issue-based piece of theatre". You guessed it - in both cases the disasters are deliberate. That they are still so enjoyable is a tribute to the skill, discipline and disturbingly convincing characterisations of the performers. Neither show contains any reference to Star Wars.

Andy Robinson, Jason Byrne, Omid Djalili, Sean Cullen: Pleasance (0131 556 6550) to Monday; Terry Alderton: Assembly Rooms (0131 226 2428) tonight only; Marcus Brigstocke, Count Arthur Strong and Terry Titter, Arthur Dung Show: Gilded Balloon (0131 226 2151) to Monday