THE CRITICS : Naked with Ned

COMEDY; JENNY ECLAIR, RICHARD HERRING, CLUUB ZARATHUSTRA et al in Edinburgh
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
WHATEVER else does or doesn't happen in the 21 fevered nights to come, this year's Edinburgh comedy will be unique in at least one respect. In the witch- ing hour of Friday night, the nation's laughter-making community came together in a bizarre but moving ceremony.

Naked except for masks of Emma Freud and Ned Sherrin, they marched through the streets of the city to an unnamed patisserie and solemnly pledged to boycott 1995's Perrier Award in protest at French nuclear testing. Since this oath was taken on the comedians' holy of holies, Bob Monkhouse's Joke Book (purloined for this very purpose!), it is expected to prove binding.

Mineral water already plays little part in the world of hard-drinking super-mum Jenny Eclair. The charms of her bottle-blonde wild-woman persona might be expected to fade with familiarity, but like a trusty gusset, she seems to get better with age, and a packed house is silly putty in her hands from the outset. Self-proclaimed as "SE5's answer to Dorothy Parker", Eclair's fag-addled voice rasps like sandpaper on a velvet cushion. And just when you think there is no new depth to which she can stoop, she gleefully lowers the tone another geological stratum or five.

Her finest, filthiest flights of fancy elicit gasps of admiration and disgust from the audience. Eclair's scatalogical and gynaecological exactitude means that she is best experienced in live performance. Readers might like to indulge in a game of Joke Jeopardy by imagining the set-up to the following punchline: "I don't use Tampax any more, I just roll up the duvet."

Eclair's rogue female is a very different order of being to the pitiful, snivelling boy-creature at the heart of Richard Herring's Richard Herring is All Man. By some distance the most fully realised of the genial Fist of Fun luminary's three one-man shows, this in-depth expose of masculine sadness starts out jokily enough - "When I became a man I put away childish things ... but as I was putting them away I thought, Hey, some of these things are pretty good" - but has some genuinely dark moments.

Herring's bumbling self-deprecation is the perfect cover for a sharp comic brain, and though his subject matter gets worrying close to Nick Hornby territory at times, his finely tuned sense of the absurd never deserts him: the shaven-man-fighting-with-a-beard-comprised-of-a-lifetime's- spurned-and-vengeful-stubble concept is a classic of its kind. And he copes admirably with the late arrival of one of his two supporting cast- members, perhaps sustained by the aptly pathetic nature of his excuse - his Lion King watch had stopped.

Stewart Lee, Herring's kiss-curled TV accomplice, crops up in a back- up capacity in Cluub Zarathustra, an effectively anarchic vehicle for the savage wordplay of Simon Munnery (aka Alan Parker, Urban Warrior). Lee's role is, he announces, "to look pretty and use my minor-TV-celebrity status to attract an audience". Munnery's mission: to lord it over the paying public. A Nietzschean superman in a shirt bedecked with Christmas lights, he tells one lucky punter: "You have the anagram of a good face."

It makes a refreshing change to see a show that seeks to insult not its audience's intelligence but the very fibre of their being. Amid the relentless barrage of eerie music, weird poetry and men in hoods, Munnery never loses sight of the central objectives of linguistic exactitude and existential severity. "Cleanliness is next to godliness, you say? The chip shop is next to the hairdresser's, but that does not persuade me to visit either."

"From Radio 4's Loose Ends" is not much of a comedic recommendation but glitter-clad leprechaun Graham Norton just about manages to live it down. Admirably unfazed by the absence of the Amazing Hostess Trolley which is his show's conceptual cornerstone (it's stuck on a lorry half way up the M1), he supplies his audience with the perfect riposte to sellers of lucky heather: "You're a tinker, living in the street with your children, how lucky can it be?"

All shows: Edinburgh Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, from tonight.

Comments