Arts feature

The next Joyce Grenfell at the Edinburgh Fringe

Lloyd Evans samples the delights of the Fringe

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

Strict bylaws in Edinburgh prevent you from buying off-licence booze after ten at night. You can, however, buy all the sauce you want from ten in the morning. (This may explain why alcoholism is so rare up here.) When midnight tolls, Festival revellers pour forth and fill the air with chanting and singing of variable aesthetic quality, and the only way to get any peace is to lapse into a Valium coma.

By day I venture forth with sleepy eyes in search of great art. Lee Kern: Bitter Twitter (Gilded Balloon) wants to unmask the superficial malignity of Twitter. His tactic is to tweet silly questions to silly celebs and to recite their silly replies on stage in an angry voice. This doesn’t take us very far. Twitter, posing as social leveller, has simply magnified the gap between watched and watcher. The ‘follower’ tally on every account gives a more accurate gauge of fame than any device yet invented. Jerry Seinfeld skewered it like this: ‘Why say a few things to a lot of people when I can say nothing to everybody?’

Seinfeld’s old chum Al Lubel is at the Fringe. Here’s a typical line. ‘I’m going to talk about something no other comedian talks about. Myself. Because no other comedian talks about Al Lubel.’ In fact, that gag is 20 years old but it might have come from Lubel’s present show (Al Lubel Is Mentally Al, Just the Tonic at the Caves). He’s a cerebral and engaging presence but his offbeat narcissism needs a new flavour.

The Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III is the best comedian I’ve seen who doesn’t have his own chat show. So he’s created his own (Brothers and Sisters…It’s the Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III) at the Gilded Balloon. The Rev poses as a southern preacher in a black beard, white suit and Aviator shades. He claims to be a penitent who has disavowed drink, drugs and fornication but he’s clearly using his pastoral office to debauch himself afresh. He invites women on to his sofa and attempts to laugh them into bed with lustful witticisms. His sidekick, playing gospel licks on an electric organ, leads the crowd in a response of ‘Ay-may-en!’ whenever the preacher makes a salacious remark.

It baffles me that the Rev (played by Jim Muir) is performing at a Fringe bar in Edinburgh when he could easily fill a prime-time slot on ITV. I suspect that Muir, like his friend Frankie Boyle, abhors the commercialism of stand-up and wants to keep his act ‘pure’. How the Rev would deplore such piety.

Catriona Knox: Player (Pleasance Attic) is performing one those ‘uh-oh’ shows. ‘Uh-oh, I don’t want to watch an hour of character comedy.’ Knox is young, beautiful, intelligent and blazingly gifted. She kicks off with a Jane Austen spoof in which the nubile innocent —  ‘I am but 15 and a quarter years of age’ — has already sampled the physical goods and implores her papa to marry her off to the best-hung stud in the ball-room. Her next sketch, conducted entirely in French, takes merry swings at the idiocy of the examination system. Then she plays a deluded mum carrying a bag of rice instead of a baby. Are these ideas a bit thin? Yes, but her inventiveness, grace and charisma transform them into dazzling comedy. She already has the full range of skills: voices, accents, characters, improvisation, political satire and slapstick. And she’s a great mime, too (not a gift shared by all comedians). The closing number is a Strictly spoof that becomes a small masterclass in comic choreography. She needs to find producers who will shape and develop her career. She may not be the next Chaplin but she’s as good as Joyce Grenfell already, if not better.

Way Back (Underbelly) is a mildly amusing sitcom set on Beachy Head, where counsellors keep falling in love with would-be jumpers. Given a more credible plot line the show might have potential.

The Three Lions (Pleasance Beyond) by William Gaminara takes place in a Zurich hotel room where Prince William, David Cameron and David Beckham are preparing to launch England’s bid to host the World Cup in 2018. The elements of the story are true and the script is an exquisite piece of satire. The characters are immensely likeable. Cameron is brusque and smarmy but his desire to beat the Russians and secure the Cup for England makes him instantly appealing. Prince William is a Fogle-ish charmer who enjoys practical jokes. David Beckham is sweet-natured, obsessed with men’s styling, and catastrophically stupid. But his befuddlement is endearing rather than risible. ‘Qatar?’ he asks. ‘Since when did that stuff become a country?’

Great casting gives this show a massive boost. Dugald Bruce Lockhart doesn’t quite impersonate Cameron but he applies great gusts of energy to the role and creates a seismic wave of upper-class chutzpah. Tom Davey (William) and Sean Browne (Beckham) have the right facial looks and vocal mannerisms. And, wonder of wonders, they’re the correct height too, with Beckham ceding about three inches to the towering William. The prince’s baldness leads to a hilarious snatch of dialogue about the virtues of conditioner that finishes with a profoundly embarrassed William offering deep and heartfelt thanks to Beckham for his hair-care advice. The show is full of delicate little moments like that. And it’s crammed with big laughs too. I’ve never seen an Edinburgh show more perfectly configured for a West End transfer. Clear your diaries, chaps, you’re coming into town.

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