THE CRITICS : Harry and the hamster - you heard it here first


No sighting has yet been recorded of Harry Hill talking to a kestrel or turning his enemies into raspberry Pop Tarts, but to emerge from weekly appearances on the debacle that was ITV's Saturday Live with reputation not only intact but actually enhanced? Well, in medieval times, such a feat would surely have got you burnt as a wizard.

Anyone still harbouring doubts about Hill's knack for the miraculous is advised - politely but with a hint of menace - to consider his superb new show '96 Comeback Special (Pleasance). It has all the things that this very strange man's ever- growing army of admirers have come to expect of him - an exquisitely cruel black-and-white film about a boy with a big face, a series of marvellous Baroque wigs, and an adult portion of thought-provoking philosophical insight ("If you drop a Bible from a height, you can kill a fieldmouse," he muses metaphysically, "so maybe the Bible isn't all good") - and plenty more besides.

Given how smoothly things are going for Hill at the moment there was no real call for daring departures this year, but he gives us three anyway, just for the fun of it. There's an improbably expressive glove-puppet called Stouffer the Cat, a bold new venture into audience participation (three grim-facedly unco-operative under-10's in the front row are left hilariously bemused by Hill's attempts to get in touch with their inner children), and, best of all, an exciting new political direction. The fact of 17 years of Conservative rule is seen in an entirely new light: through the eyes of the animal kingdom. "It's a long time to you, but it's a lifetime to a dog," Hill begins, fearlessly running the furry gamut to "14 generations of hamsters crying out for change".

Matt Lucas - known and loved by millions as George Dawes, Shooting Stars' Great Big Baby - emerged cooing and blinking into the crazy, mixed-up, post-Vic & Bob world at about the same time as Hill, but while the latter's talent continues to ripen, the former's currently seems in danger of dying on the vine. Sir Bernard Chumley's Gangshow (Assembly) finds Lucas and his equally gifted sidekick David Walliams skateboarding headlong up an anal/misogynist cul-de-sac. Their relentless scabrosity has torn free from its satirical moorings and is now floating freely in the lower reaches of self-hatred.

With The Landlord's Late Lock In (Pleasance II), Al Murray supplies an object lesson in how to make the unpalatable delicious. In just a few months of extremely hard work, Murray's pub landlord has progressed from an above-average club turn to a brilliantly rounded piece of social and political observation. Alternately belligerent and lachrymose, a Gazza of the pumps, he philosophises elo- quently on every topic under the sun: from his love and admiration for the fathers of English nationhood - "Churchill, Nelson, Ray Davies of the Kinks" - to the possibility that some exaggeration might have been involved in the writing of the Gospels. "Bear in mind," Murray counsels sagely, "they were fisherman."

Presumably Philippa Fordham and Henrietta Garden thought that calling their show Girls With Big Jests (Gilded Balloon II) would bring it to a wider audience, and no doubt it has done, but someone has to speak for that section of the populace with too much style and self-respect ever to consider attending a function with such a name, and I am that man. Gina Ryan, Liz Webb and Marian Pashley's less egregiously titled Stand Up Women (Gilded Balloon II), on the other hand, makes a bold bid to break out from the precious cupboard-under-the-stairs' worth of elbow room garnered by Jo Brand and Jenny Eclair.

Ryan's best material is particularly sharp. She starts off on shaky ground with a dodgy Blind Date routine (memo to all those of a comedic inclination - there is no other kind) but swiftly moves on to surer territory: extreme bitterness mediated through sarcasm. Her love for the culture of her home county of Essex - "and by culture I mean the scum off the top of the petri dish" - is an example to all, and even some of her love poetry verges on the acceptable. "Nothing compares to you," Ryan emotes wistfully, "rather favourably actually."

On the comedian-turned-playwright front, the news is mixed. While the dreary ersatz blasphemies of Bernadine Corrigan's The Virgin Mary Show (Pleasance) might make even the most die-hard anti-clericalist want to reconsider their beliefs, Richard Herring's Punk's Not Dead (Pleasance) is a big step forward for the genial Fist of Fun luminary. As with Dealer's Choice, the similarly impressive debut of Herring's close friend Patrick Marber, there is the occasional sense of fine comic writing being shoe-horned into conventional dramatic shape, but this born- too-late Somerset punker's Big Chill ultimately manages to be not just very funny but also rather moving.

Last, and perhaps still more poignantly, all those playing to half-full and even emptier houses should spare a thought for Ardal O'Hanlon (Gilded Balloon). The awesome pulling power of Father Ted ensures that people are queuing halfway to Aberdeen to see him, but Ardal is too modest and well-balanced an individual not to find this deeply disturbing. Like Jane Austen's ghost chancing upon a copy of Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth on the cover, he is forced to ask himself some very difficult questions. One of these questions is: "What do you say to a room full of strangers?"

All shows continue at Edinburgh Pleasance (0131 556 6550), Gilded Balloon (0131 226 2151) and Assembly Theatre (0131 226 2428), to 31 Aug.

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