Edinburgh Festival Fringe cabaret & variety reviews: Mat Ricardo: The Extraordinary Gentleman | Reuben Kaye: The Butch is Back | Debra Stephenson: The Many Voices of Debra Stephenson | An Evening Without Kate Bush

Highlights from our latest round of reviews include a painstakingly inventive juggler and a delightful tribute to the enigmatic Kate Bush. Words by Ben Walters and Claire Smith.

Mat Ricardo: The Extraordinary Gentleman *****

Gilded Balloon Teviot (Sportsman) (Venue 14)

Coming from most people, an invitation to join someone for ‘an hour of “look at some things I learned”’ might not seem that compelling. But Mat Ricardo is not most people. A veteran not only of the Fringe but of cabaret and street performance circuits around the world, he is a gentleman juggler of rare talent and expertise, gifted not only in remarkable feats of balance and dexterity but also in the judicious manipulation of a crowd – whether a piazza of punters or a relatively intimate room like the Gilded Balloon’s Sportsman space.

Mat Ricardo: The Extraordinary Gentleman

Ricardo’s show this year is something of a greatest-hits collection. Given his painstakingly inventively curated repertoire, this in itself would make it essential viewing. But after the last couple of years, there’s a whole extra dimension to the joys of what he describes as “seeing somebody do something live, before your very eyes, that you’ve never seen done before” – not only as in-person spectacle but as a shared collective experience.

Being a gentleman juggler means that, as well as being dapperly dressed, Ricardo uses props such as cigar boxes, martini glasses and elaborate tableware for his tricks. He does things with knives for real that Hollywood can only manage with post-production effects. But the remarkable feats are only half the pleasure. Ricardo is not a magician – these ‘tricks’ involve no deception – but, like a good illusionist, he frames the technical work with compelling narratives about vaudeville history and his own background.

Nowhere else will you learn the ancient history of the yoyo while seeing one aimed with precision at a silk scarf and a pyramid of glasses. Ricardo balances not only boxes and balls but cockiness and self-deprecation, world-weariness and delight, maintaining a marvellous rapport with the audience throughout this treat of a show. Ben Walters

Until 28 August

Reuben Kaye: The Butch is Back ****

Assembly Checkpoint (Venue 322)

“People say, ‘Stay in the moment’,” Reuben Kaye muses. “I say, ‘Have you seen the f*cking moment?!’” It’s a fair point, given the multitude of political, environmental and existential crises facing us every day. However, it’s hard not to be in the moment watching Kaye’s show. This is maximalist, rock-star cabaret that demands your attention, and amply rewards it.

Knitting together leftfield roof-raising numbers, motormouthed radical commentary, soul-searching personal memoir and gleefully filthy banter, it’s constantly teetering on the edge of attempting too much – of being too much. But it also invites us to question who gets to decide what ‘too much’ even means, and who might suffer when such boundaries are assumed to be self-evident and policed as such.

Lavishly eye-lashed with a megawatt grin and no stranger to a bustle or bolero, Kaye explodes on stage to the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil and never lets up. An eclectic set list ranges from The Cure to Stormzy, Reba McIntire to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In between, Kaye pinballs between dizzyingly distilled critiques of social injustice, a glorious barrage of shame-defying obscenity and an autobiographical tale of inherited trauma, alienation and self-expression.

He brings cinematic verve and painterly detail to this slow-burning vignette, which traces aspects of his evolution from “gay toddler Babadook” to the performer before us. All this is backed by innovative arrangements and rolling accompaniment from a tight, dynamic four-piece band.

Is it too much? It’s loud as hell, the patter metaphorically douses you in a firehose of bodily fluids, and the storytelling skates over some huge subjects without a backward glance. But few other acts can simultaneously deliver a rollercoaster of entertainment and a meditation on the power of self-definition with the verve on show here. Kaye makes moments worth staying in. Ben Walters

Until 28 August

Debra Stephenson: The Many Voices of Debra Stephenson **

Assembly George Square Studios (Venue 17)

Oh dear god I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in the 1970s. Debra Stephenson has a fine pedigree as an actress and impressionist on shows such as Dead Ringers. But her show is stuck in a bizarre time warp - with impressions of Cilla Black, Shirley Bassey and Margaret Thatcher. Never mind relevant - only one of those is actually alive. The vocal and musical impressions are skilful - but the script is groaning with ancient and predictable gags. It’s almost a relief when Priti Patel and Liz Truss turn up - something I never thought I’d say in a million years. Claire Smith

Until 28 August

An Evening Without Kate Bush ****

Assembly George Square Gardens (Piccolo) (Venue 3)

Whatever wild notions might have featured on your 2022 bingo card, ‘Kate Bush revival’ is unlikely to have been among them. But then the Netflix fantasy series Stranger Things struck a global chord by deploying Running Up That Hill as a demon-slaying anthem and here we are. This can only have come as a welcome surprise to the inventive, industrious cabaret artist Sarah-Louise Young, creator of this delightful tribute to Kent’s most beloved and elusive singer-songwriter. The show in fact debuted before the pandemic but surely benefits from the renewed interest in its subject – though Bush, of course, has never been one to let the fickle currents of mainstream popularity dictate her progress.

An Evening Without Kate Bush is many things. It’s a bravura showcase for Young’s terrific delivery of the star’s iconic hits, each reworked distinctively with depth and humour. Bush is famously easier to parody than emulate but Young’s vocals are excellent, lovingly nailing Bush’s swooping, eerie register without mockery. (There’s more room for affectionate lampooning in the choreography.) The costumes range from black satin wings and red leotard to leopardskin tabard, and there’s lovely use of leftfield props. The show is also a moving tribute to the role the singer has played in Young’s life, and many others’ lives: it takes serious the power of fandom to nurture comfort, meaning and belonging, both in the room during this performance and in the world at large.

It’s surprising, then, that this year’s resurgence of interest in Bush – especially among younger generations for whom she has no nostalgic appeal – doesn’t warrant more than a nod or two here. It would be intriguing to hear more about how Bush’s sensibility and expression speak afresh to such troubled, tumultuous times. Then again, perhaps we need only listen to the songs. Ben Walters

Until 29 August