THE CRITICS: The joy of being Harried

COMEDY; HARRY HILL, SIR BERNARD CHUMLEY, MICHAEL REDMOND, GERALDINE MCNULTY, MEL & SUE, IAN COGNITO, ET AL
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LAST YEAR'S Pub Internationale was such a triumph that it was hard to see how Harry Hill (Pleasance) could follow it. His decision to rehearse his new show in public last month did nothing to calm such fears. But Savlon 2000 turns out to be the perfect showcase for a man in total command of his craft. Aside from a very funny opening film, the show is pure stand-up, and has no theme other than the tears of a young Jimmy Saville falling on a graze and healing it (thus, the invention of Savlon) - but there's enough comedy meat here to feed a pride of lions.

At one time Harry Hill was a slightly brittle, closed-off performer, but now you can see him savouring and reacting to the quality of individual audience members' laughter. Especially Ronnie Corbett's. This is the second consecutive time I've seen Hill when Corbett has been in attendance. No doubt he is drawn by the thrill of the Hill comedy chase: the way that when you're being Harried, classic question-begging avenues turn into cul-de-sacs ("Apparently, you can tell a lot about someone ... from what they're like!") and seeming blind alleys open out into huge imaginative vistas.

One of this new show's most philosophically arresting notions is the "arch-enemy dinner", wherein all the animals have eaten their enemies until right in the middle there's a snug and happy spider, just warm - not cooked right through. "What are the chances of that happening?" Hill demands, understandably triumphant. He has an ex-doctor's respect for the food chain. And if there is a message in his madness - and four-fifths of the fun is that there doesn't need to be - it is that the bewildering profusion and complexity of our culture only mirrors that of the natural order, so we might as well evolve the capacity to enjoy it.

Matt Lucas's degenerate raconteur Sir Bernard Chumley (Assembly)could be the last of the faux show-business family line. His fondness for what is still in decent company termed the c-word appals some; the little piece of carpet on his head disturbs others; but there is still something profoundly invigorating about his Tourette-like outbursts. And it is fun watching the extravagantly talented Lucas and his equally obscene sidekick David Walliams struggling to escape the cell in which they've caged themselves.

Eamon - Older Brother of Jesus ("From the moment he was born it was all 'Jesus this' and 'Jesus that' ") - is a more reliable one-joke vehicle. But stone-deadpan Michael Redmond (Gilded Balloon) gets funnier the further he proceeds from his starting point. He is at his best pondering the diminishing allure of Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again" - "Chubby could never understand that people needed to get on with their lives".

A single incarnation is not challenge enough for Geraldine McNulty. Her Ten Women in a One-Frock Show (Gilded Balloon) is something of a tour de force, and packs its hour to bursting. From the landlady with a houseful of corpses all paying by direct debit, to the bad-hair-day sufferer who elicits an admiring "know what you mean, hen" from cackling stalls, McNulty's characters aren't onstage long, but they stick in the mind. That they do so is a testament not just to the intensity and precision of her acting, but also to the acuity of her team of writers - a luxury from which the more widely feted but less substantial Mel And Sue (Pleasance) would certainly benefit.

In the Edinburgh fringe programme, where other comedians insert a brief resume of awards, TV credits and critical kindnesses, Ian Cognito just has his name written over and over again. The heroic sweep of this man's egotism had helped make him one of the festival's most eagerly anticipated comic attractions. Unfortunately, just a couple of nights into the proceedings Cognito decided to pick a fight with another comedian - boxer/hairdresser/man- mountain Ricky Grover - and having been felled by a single blow, stormed back to London in a huff. Of such misdemeanours legends are made, but, sadly, not careers.

Billed as "The female voice of Spitting Image", Kate Robbins (Assembly) does a This is Me show. She also does Cilla singing "Surprise Surprise", neglecting to credit the song's author - one K Robbins. This might seem a bit like having your cake and eating it, but what else would you want to do with your cake? And anyone who has served time at the Crossroads Motel and is prepared to talk about it can be forgiven a lot.

For Greg Proops (Assembly), redemption is not an option: no one could ever find this man as funny as he finds himself. Gratuitous violence and extreme cruelty, on the other hand, will always find an audience. The Amazing Johnathan (Assembly) staples playing-cards to the eyes of his hapless assistant Psychic Sandra, to rapturous applause. The revelation that Sandra - a post-apocalyptic Debbie McGee - is in fact Johnathan's wife is clearly supposed to make us feel even better about this, but I'm not so sure.

Coming on to mid-scale teenage rapture and an instant catchphrase- echo facility is many a comedian's dream. For Lee & Herring (Pleasance) it might have been a nightmare, but their Fist of Fun stage show puts the new recognition factor to hearteningly creative use. Toying with their audience's expectations to highly amusing effect, they set aside the repetition of favoured routines for mingled indulgence and experimentation, at one magical moment succeeding in changing the colour of a silence.

'Lee & Herring' ends tonight. All other shows continue at The Pleasance, 0131 556 6550; Gilded Balloon, 0131 226 2151; and Assembly Rooms, 0131 226 2428.

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