Comedy review: James McNicholas: The Boxer, Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

McNicholas contrasts his grandfather's hard-fought success with his own, equally hard-fought failures
McNicholas contrasts his grandfather's hard-fought success with his own, equally hard-fought failures
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Like many cinemagoers, I'm a sucker for the sort of brutishly rudimentary, Hollywood-boxing-movie cliches that James McNicholas embraces in his richly entertaining stand-up debut.

James McNicholas: The Boxer, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) * * * *

More importantly than the rise-fall-redemption narrative of Rocky and his ilk though, the sports journalist and member of sketch trio BEASTS can draw upon the tale of his own grandfather, Terry Downes, 1961 middleweight champion of the world.

Dramatising the Paddington Express' story by appropriating the tracksuit and focused aggression of a man who fought for the US marines and went up a weight division to challenge his nemesis, McNicholas contrasts his grandfather's hard-fought success with his own, equally hard-fought failures. A bespectacled, rather doughy and often unemployed actor, a lucrative Belgian cracker advert remains one of his sole crumbs of consoling comfort.

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As betrays his sketch background, McNicholas invests his ancestor with larger-than-life vigour and determined charisma, satisfying the demand for biography while prioritising the gags, cheekily supplementing a story that starts vividly in the war with the occasional anachronistic quip.

Downes remains iconic, even with the relative mundanity of celebrity at that time. Yet McNicholas makes him seem closer through his grandmother, heard as a young, concerned wife in newsreel footage, and later, through his reassuring chats with her on the phone. He scarcely needs Downes' superstar example to be mockingly hard on himself. But he exploits it to the maximum, while his grandfather's story edges dramatically towards a final clash in the ring.

If that were all, you'd have a compelling sporting tale and consistent laughs. But in trying circumstances, the comic finds a way to bridge the gap between himself and Downes, bouncing back off the ropes just when his situation appeared at its darkest, a few feints and weaves landing some poignant blows.

Until 25 August.

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