The Critics: Edinburgh Festival: COMEDY: On the spur of a hen party

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PERHAPS the twinkliest star in the whole Edinburgh firmament, Phil Kay orbits the stage at the speed of a sunbeam. On the first of his six nights at the 800-seater Queens Hall (Kay is one of the few comedians who oblige you to specify exactly when you saw them, because no one can be quite sure what he's going to do from one night to the next), he pulls off an improvisational coup that sucks the breath out of the room.

A couple of minutes in, a rowdy hen party begins to make its presence felt. Instead of picking them up, wringing a couple of laughs out of them and then dropping them to show who's boss, as most comedians would, Kay sets his intended theme completely to one side, and devotes his whole performance to staging a fabulous mock wedding. He painstakingly assembles a groom - "an honest, poor, working-class, one-armed man" - flowers, best man, bridesmaids, trans-aisle grudges, the whole bit, and fearlessly carries the entire service through to its conclusion, without a hint of anti-climax.

Kay's greatest moments come when he teeters on the brink of disaster - "I went out on a limb and there was no arm there" - stops, swivels, and jauntily scampers back from the abyss. His genius is to create a situation in which the entire crowd can participate, and then remember things about it that everyone else has forgotten. Fifteen minutes after picking on someone upstairs for sitting with their arms crossed, Kay is a priest conducting the marriage service - "In the sight of the lord and the strange grumpy man".

Working on a smaller canvas, but to similarly beguiling effect, Bill Bailey's Cosmic Jam (Gilded Balloon) is a feast of laid-back late-night felicity. Bailey has been making comic capital out of his keyboard and guitar wizardry for some time now, but the returns are getting ever greater. Bright-eyed and unrepentantly hirsute - he boldly proclaims his intention to grow his facial hair until it tangles with his pubis and then play it like a harp - Bailey is Ted Nugent's benign younger brother. He blends verbal whimsy ("Mould is the poor man's truffle") and musical innovation (classical airs with cockney singalong interludes) with delightful dexterity.

Boothby Graffoe (Pleasance) is another canny minstrel whose time has come. Whether or not he has won this year's Perrier Award (the result was declared at midnight) his career is moving to another level anyway. His recent Montreal festival appearance excited fevered interest from assorted US TV networks, and the sky would seem to be his limit. In fact, if Boothby Graffoe has a problem, it would seem to be an excess of talents. Sometimes he seems uncertain whether he wants to be a visual, a cerebral, a political or a musical comedian, or all four at once. In this show his act finds coherence via a spectacular piece of surprise scenery, about which it would be a shame to reveal too much, except that once it's switched on, Graffoe is cooking with gas.

There is much activity in the ex-Perrier-winner paddock this year. Clinically accomplished Australian children's entertainers Lano and Woodley keep the biggest of the Assembly venues packed and happy. The talented actor/writer Ben Keaton (also at the Assembly) essays an audacious mix of character monologue, song and strip-tease, but the grotesque and pointless murder fantasy with which his show ends is no laughing matter. And Arnold Brown is on fine form at the Pleasance, musing on the relative merits of Che and Richard Branson's beards.

But what of the future? Pubescent hysteria fills the Pleasance courtyard and Harry Hill impersonators are breaking out all over. And a dark cloud gathers on the festival horizon in the shape of the Playhouse's disingenuously-titled Best of The Fest, wherein plane-loads of big names fly up from London to do one-off, all- star, night-long shows to 3,000 people, emptying the venues that put them where they are today on the nights when they should be busiest. Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Mark Lamarr, etc, feel shame. This is not what Edinburgh is meant to be about: it is supposed to be an endurance marathon, not a canter to the cashpoint.

If American stars such as Rich "robbed-of-a-Perrier-nomination-for-being- too-funny" Hall (Fringe Club) and the deceptively acerbic Diane Ford (Assembly) can be bothered to slog it out for three whole weeks, I don't see why our hardy homegrown perennials shouldn't be able to take the pressure. The above-mentioned Ford has the easy grace and ready smile of a society party hostess, but her choicest barbs have the weight of bitter experience behind them: "What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless."

Also scoring highly in the festival newcomer category is the rather less worldly- wise Simon "Santa Claus told me my dad doesn't exist" Pegg. He has the body of one of those identikit, fresh-from-college, post-Eddie Izzard type comedians, but there is a very funny man living inside it. And last but not least, elastic Yorkshireman Paul Tonkinson (Gilded Balloon) surveys the room in which he finds himself and supplies a perfect performer's eye view of the whole Edinburgh experience: "The lights are saying `showbiz showbiz showbiz', the radiators are saying `room room room'."

Phil Kay: Edinburgh Gilded Balloon (0131 226 2151) from tonight. Other shows at these venues as stated above: Pleasance (0131 556 6550); Gilded Balloon (0131 226 2151); Assembly Rooms (0131 226 2428); Fringe Club (0131 226 5138) to 2 Sept.

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