Britney: Friends and Nothing More ****
Pleasance Courtyard (Pleasance Below), until 28 August
Platonic soulmates since meeting at school in Year 9, when they bonded in the unlikely circumstances of a school trip abroad, Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson's wonderfully infectious relationship radiates warmth and mischief from the stage, drawing the observer right in to their playful hi-jinks. As friends and “nothing more”, they're deploying their sketch comedy to find relationships they can maintain, talking up their attractiveness to the crowd, even as they're clearly more interested in exploring their origin story. Their hosting of their school's 2009 Christmas Talent Show, with its Beauty and the Beast-inspired sketch, is a mutual wound, the scab of which they're picking over tonight. But that follows a literal song and dance about their opening joke, a dreadful pun that they nevertheless celebrate with brazen front. It's as cockily served up as their first foray into political satire, which equally falls short of its billing but charms with the audacity of their cheek.
Tightly scripted, but with room to loosely manoeuvre through ad-libs if the crowd is giving them the requisite energy, Britney's more obviously demarcated skits are wonderful, with a winningly daft depiction of the author Stephen King's home life and a superb rug-pull to a scene where a desperate wife has tied her panicking husband to a chair. Throughout, Clive and Robertson's repartee, their delight in their own company and swaggering indulgence of their comedy stylings, despite its obvious nerdiness, affords their pick 'n' mix of songs, skits and banter a perkily upbeat momentum, even when they're feigning falling out with each other. Their crosstalk is the bedrock of the show. But it wouldn't be sufficient without the fusillade of gags that link every scene and “segue” – the pronunciation of that word alone mined for unexpected riches. Jay Richardson
Nic Sampson: Marathon, 1904 ****
Pleasance Courtyard (The Cellar), until 28 August
With an epic tale of hubris worthy of the Olympian Gods' laughter itself, Kiwi comic actor Nic Sampson has crafted a sprawling beauty of a show from the disaster that was the 1904 Olympic marathon. Having lately taken up distance running since moving to the UK, he got interested in the history of the race and stumbled across accounts of the first modern games held outside of Europe: an overlong, barely attended competition in the grimy, industrial city of St Louis. Of all its poorly planned events, the marathon was the nadir, the bald facts recalling that of the 36 runners who signed up, only 14 finished.
In his brilliant one-man portrayal, Sampson primarily focuses on three men: cocky but inexperienced young American runner Fred Lorz; driven British veteran Thomas Hicks; and happy-go-lucky Cuban postman Felix Carvajal, who reached the starting line after a two-day journey of 600 miles jogging, walking and hitching with barely any sleep, food or water. Leaping in and out of the men's bodies as they pound the dirt, Sampson puts in a fair endurance shift himself, periodically taking time out to layer his story with additional details of the misguided organisation. Without wishing to share spoilers, the setup endangered the runners' lives at every turn with incredible stupidity will have you marvelling at the wonderful incompetence. Happily, Sampson also has a proxy for the audience offering occasional comment on the tale: the outrageous card that was Alice Roosevelt, the wild-child daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, her own story worthy of a show by itself.
Artistic licence has been taken with characterisation. But the fundamentals of Marathon, 1904 are true. And you're gripped through the twists and turns to learn the race result. The game and engaging Sampson knows when to gild the lily and when to let the madness speak for itself, making for a winning performance. Jay Richardson
Milo Edwards: Voicemail ***
Just the Tonic at The Mash House (Just the Sinifter Room), until 28 August
Accustomed to being kept by posh girls who fancy an archly cynical bit of rough, and too clever by approximately one-third, Milo Edwards is not someone you instinctively warm or relate to, the 29-year-old's early mid-life crisis simply part of a cycle by which he will return his future offspring to the poverty of their grandfather. Still, he is drily self-knowing and unsparing in his self-critique, suggesting that his Oxbridge background is the only thing he's got going for him – though even that marker of success is tempered by it being an institution built on the revenge of the nerds. And he is going through a tough, transitory period. His late father's voicemail is his last tangible connection to the man, but his intimidating mother has instilled a stoic reserve in him. Much more comfortable on cultural analysis than soul-baring, Edwards applies his attuned, considerable wit to the harsh ways that TikTok reminds you you're over the hill and the need to redefine porn staple the MILF at a time when generational boundaries are shifting. A hot take on assassinating Hitler shows he's an original thinker and his class-conscious vision of the Dunkirk evacuation is waggishly subversive. Ultimately, he can't sideline his parents from his showy intellectualising, resulting in an hour that's necessarily full of compromise and awkwardness that does at least humanise him. Jay Richardson
Sam Lake: Cake ***
Pleasance Courtyard (The Cellar), until 28 August
A lovely, gooey confection of a show, Sam Lake's Fringe stand-up debut doesn't redefine the art form but it's a sweet hour, appealingly told. Having reached 30, older than pensionable in gay years, the Edinburgh resident found himself stunned by a young guy in a nightclub, whose appallingly rakish behaviour Lake is both mesmerised by and finds himself set in hard opposition against. The chief reason for this is that Lake has plumped for the old-fashioned institution of marriage, though largely thanks to Covid and other multiple mishaps, it seemed like his wedding to his other half, David, might never happen. Alternating between cynical man of the world and flustered ingenue, his efforts to purchase drugs a study in naivety, Lake is tremendously fun company, his sense of his own ridiculousness instantly ingratiating. Very amusing on the coup d'etat he declares that homosexuals are staging on television, though justifiably withering of Love Island's refusal to countenance gay participants, Lake is nevertheless principally focused on himself and his love story, entirely right given the drama that it's caused him. The reaction of his best friend to his husband's artful proposal is a delight. And all's well that ends well, ensuring you leave this diverting hour with a bounce in your heart. Jay Richardson
Ruth Hunter and the Ruth-hunter ***
PBH's Free Fringe @ Banshee Labyrinth (Banquet Hall), until 28 August
With her creepy basement venue and the legacy of lockdown exacerbating her distinctive shtick, Ruth Hunter has a self-conscious style that blurs the line between spooky and mental health problems, with just a dash of lapsed Catholicism and sexual amorphousness. Crossing swords with her stage announcer from the first, the Glasgow-based Irishwoman's brain is in open revolt with her, meaning even her most ardent or persuasive opinions need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Intermittently reading from her pandemic bedsit diaries, she's haunted by a ghost, the spectre coming slowly for her over an oppressively long period, the suspense suiting her dry, droll, yet occasionally, poetically verbose delivery. Lest you're drawn to her otherworldly presence though, as many a feckless man apparently has been, she relates a lockdown low point where she was getting too engaged with her body, the visceral disgust that accompanies this bit a reminder that comedy doesn't always need to provoke warm fuzzy feelings. Ultimately, the vague hotchpotch of routines doesn't really cohere into something comprehensibly solid. But the supernatural window dressing is fun and Hunter is an idiosyncratic talent. Jay Richardson
Alice Brine: Brinestorm ***
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Turret), until 28 August
A conversational, in-your-face stand-up, Alice Brine eschews a conventional introduction to suggest she has some daddy issues, before launching into her underlying perception of the world: that people are either “rats” or “potatoes”, a seemingly arbitrary mode of classification that she applies to successive celebrities. I have to say it left me largely flummoxed. But many others in the room were clearly onboard, instinctively knowing the right answers to her binary question. Explaining a lot, the Kiwi comic then divulges that she has ADHD, a commonly identified-with plight at this year's festival, but which Brine probably has a more debilitating form of than many performers. Prompting her hyper-fixation on creating Facebook pages, she conjured this whole other, highly credible world for herself as a successful seafood restaurateur, inadvertently catfishing thousands of people. As a useful primer on Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, she takes the trouble to distinguish between the scattier mental processes of most people and what it's like to truly suffer from the condition, explaining the difference with clarity and self-mocking good humour. Lest you're tempted to feel sorry for her though, her closing tale, involving a pet, a vet and revenge, suggests she's someone you'd best not cross. Jay RichardsonPhil Kay: Quantity Street ***
Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, until 28 AugustIt’s always a joy to see Phil Kay, whether he takes off in a cloud of comic invention or just trundles happily along the ground. This show is definitely of the trundling variety. Phil talks a lot about his haemorrhoids, visiting his aged parent, cycling and playing games with his kids. Occasionally he picks up the guitar and tries to pull a song out of the air – but it never really comes together.There are little bits of verbal brilliance, melody and play – but it’s a weird night in an oddly quiet room and things are a little off. A lot of the problem is the room. What used to be a welcoming space in a lovely warm ramshackle building has been turned into a naff Georgian wedding venue with cheap chandeliers and a giant advertisement for some kind of white sticky drink.Phil chats, sings and plays, regaling the audience with memories, reflections and unmistakeable warmth.He’s a natural soul and we wish we were watching Phil Kay next to a bonfire, in a tent, on a beach, in a wood or in a meadow. It’s lovely to see him but we don’t get to see him fly. Claire Smith