Edinburgh Festival Fringe comedy reviews: Catherine Bohart | Helen Bauer | Lee Kyle | Conrad Koch | Sammy Obeid | Eric Rushton | Sara Barron | The Working Girls of Soho
Irish comic Catherine Bohart's break-up story This Isn't For You is a thoughtful, honest and routinely very funny account of lessons learned from getting dumped out of the blue, and one of our critics' favourite shows from the last weekend of the Fringe. Reviews by Jay Richardson and Kate Copstick.
Catherine Bohart: This Isn't For You ****
Monkey Barrel Comedy (Monkey Barrel 1) (Venue 515)
With the complicating wrinkle that her ex is known to everyone in comedy and to anyone who listened to their BBC podcast about relationships, Catherine Bohart's break-up story, intensified by lockdown, is far enough removed from the split now for the Irish comic to deliver a thoughtful, honest and routinely very funny account of the salutary lessons she's learned from the experience. Although she convinces you of the pain and psychological rebuilding she's needed to manage since being dumped out of the blue, she's engagingly conversational about it, gently probing the audience about their relationships. Fostering a spirit of communal intimacy, it also gifts her something to spontaneously react against in a show that's already toured the UK before arriving at the Fringe.
Rather than criticise her ex, Bohart delivers a character assassination of herself, breezily holding her hands up to her OCD tendencies. And with considerable mortification, she illustrates her pathetic need to people please with the tale of the body enhancement she got after they first met, which she followed through with rather than lose face. Beyond that, she's scathing about the advice on offer for the recently dumped and reluctantly undertakes therapy, of dubious value given that she finds herself principally judging her therapist. She also runs through the dreadful admin attached to a break-up, as in who gets to keep the former couple's shared dentist? And how accommodating are her phone and broadband provider in updating her account, while recognising modern sexualities? Certainly, Bohart herself is very forward-thinking. Or backward, depending on your perspective, explaining how lesbians recycle sex toys, while indulging in some hitherto out-of-character incest jokes. An edge to add to her agitated mental health one and her otherwise easy amiability, This Isn't For You counter-intuitively has something for everyone. Jay Richardson
Helen Bauer: Madam Good Tit ****
Pleasance Courtyard (Bunker Two) (Venue 33)
An absolute bulldozer of a performer, Helen Bauer's projected self-confidence is a welcome flip of perspective to the instinctive self-deprecation of most UK stand-ups. Since childhood, she seems to have developed a sort of cognitive dissonance whereby she's aware of her flaws but chooses to suppress them, or at least not be inhibited by them. Her schooldays were characterised by her trying out successive different personalities. And though she complains at having landed on “basic bitch”, it's more in truth prima-donnish leading lady that she brings to the stage. Identifying marks in the front rows and assigning antagnostic or kindred spirit roles to them for the duration of show – annoying, carefree petite girl say or baffled older man - it's done in an organic manner that barely draws attention to the process. Meanwhile, Bauer's bitchy, sardonic giggling, or blurted “me neither!” whenever she's sought empathy but overshared, is economically deployed shtick and all the more effective for it.
Delighting in being asked to give the eulogy at a relative's funeral, a chance for her to hog the limelight, Bauer is blithely brazen about her monstrous ego. However, the dead man's corpulence is also a chance for her to relate her comfort with her fatness, an issue in others' minds rather than hers'. Friends telling her she'll be more comfortable in her own skin now that she's turned 30 have grossly underestimated her almost complete absence of shame, which runs parallel to avowed pride in her breasts. And she combines the benefits of her size with the slightly awkward resonance of her German ancestry for an uproariously inappropriate visual image from a school netball game. With an innate sense of her own ridiculousness and few hang-ups, at least that she carries to the mic with her, Bauer is currently in a field of stand-up all of her own, sticking out for all the right reasons. Jay Richardson
Lee Kyle: Parochial Glitter Implosion ***
Laughing Horse @ City Cafe (Venue 85)
Playing in the not entirely welcoming confines of one of the downstairs karaoke booths at the City Café, Lee Kyle still managed to make the compact room feel like the perfect place to experience stand-up comedy. The comedian from the north-east of England’s material includes elements of observational and autobiographical material, and his manner is warm and unthreatening, but not so much we feel there won’t be a bit of edge to the evening.
The relatable and the lightly absurdist come together during his set, and he’s got a political edge which manifests in material which blends the straight-talking and the compassionate. Why do people complain about footballers’ wages when they don’t complain about CEOs’? What is going on with Republicans who still profess to like the Queen? What does the size of Michaelangelo’s David’s penis have to do with his masculinity?
Despite the presentation of the show, it’s not a piece about sexuality, but Kyle does have some good material which draws on personal experience about inclusivity and normalising queerness, from the perspective of a straight northern bloke. An hour in his company is very well-spent. David Pollock
Conrad Koch: White Noise ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Bunker Three) (Venue 33)
Choosing to confront racism with your Fringe debut is a pretty bold move. And even more so when you're a white South African with a German name. Still more so when you're a ventriloquist, possibly the most derided of all artforms. But Conrad Koch is a committed performer who pulls few punches, tackling apartheid, sure, but also the thornier aspects of everyday societal prejudice that prevail. The greater majority of his act is given over to his puppet Chester Missing, a bald, wide-eyed dummy who's an unfiltered, outspoken commentator on his master's virtue signalling, hypocrisy, post-race posturing and white saviour energy. Koch puts himself in the position of making straw man arguments, only to immediately cut them down as Chester. Initially at least, the pair's globetrotting observations lack a bit of focus and their UK cultural references are just the tiniest bit off, clearly cut and pasted onto a broader template. Though shockingly horrific in places, the post-Mandela racism they identify in South Africa is less relatable for an audience unused to such extremes of poverty. Nevertheless, Koch is witty on the creaky justifications for the Commonwealth. And when he gets stuck into the personal, individual applications of racism, he's on surer footing. Jay Richardson
Sammy Obeid ***
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Sportsmans) (Venue 14)
An American of Palestinian-Lebanese heritage, who makes the bold claim of being the first US headliner to perform in Russia, Sammy Obeid had to work hard on the night I caught his graveyard shift show, entertaining a small but disparate crowd with one or two lively elements somewhat the better for drink. Not ideal for a nerdy comic who does jokes on maths, the wordplay of his name and geopolitics. But he fought hard and ultimately prevailed through grace and good humour. With the ambition to tackle Israel-Palestine tensions and the thorny topic of abortion in the States with playful whimsy, he's got a nice line in puns and is droll on how Christopher Columbus, far from discovering America by mistake, was actually a prophet of its future ethnic make-up. Clever and understatedly daring, his efforts nevertheless rather fell on deaf ears, or at least, rather a lot of voluble encouragement, almost worse than conventional heckling. So he spent a significant amount of time wrangling and settling the crowd, possibly not his forte. A reasonable taster of his talents however, it seems likely that he could accomplish more in an earlier time slot with a fairer wind behind him. Jay Richardson
Eric Rushton: I Had a Dream and You Were All in It ****
Just the Tonic at The Mash House (Just the Attic) (Venue 288)
In a growing sub-genre of Fringe hours that are acutely aware of the cliché of the “dead dad” show that was en vogue a few years back, but still feel the need to address the loss of a parent, Eric Rushton's debut earns the right to be earnest for a while with a general frivolity and flippancy that's a pleasure to encounter. A stand-up aficionado who appreciates the apprenticeship the best comics teach themselves, of how to deliberately lose an audience so you can learn how to win them back, his exaggerated version of this gives a fine indication of the character of his comedy – often hilarious, absurdist imagery delivered with a low-key lack of showiness, reminiscent of Sean Lock perhaps. From a family of eight, whose parents split when he was young, Rushton certainly has a similar working-class backstory to the late comic and he likewise expresses his idiosyncratic intelligence in his punchlines, his setups down-to-earth and relatable. Playing status games, he jokingly establishes himself as the alpha in the room by slapping down an innocent member of the audience, reflecting on the trend for those who can't afford therapy to try to find it in gym visits and indeed, stand-up comedy. And though he presents himself as lazily feckless, drifting from one rubbish job to another, in truth he's a master craftsman, with an arsenal of great one-liners and a particular skill with a pullback and reveal gag.
When Rushton really gets into his father's death, it is a bit of a gear crunch. But counter-intuitively, he captures the humanity of it by playing a video of him performing on the night he found out his old man had passed, putting down a heckler, the audience at that gig completely unaware of the internal grief he was processing. As he subsequently relates, comedy allows him to emote and connect in a way he otherwise can't, and it's a privilege to be part of that. Jay Richardson
Sara Barron: Hard Feelings ***
Pleasance Courtyard (Upstairs) (Venue 33)
To say Sara Barron enjoys a good bitch would be a considerable understatement. The US comic has lived in the UK for nearly a decade and has learned our emotional reserve, whilst acknowledging that she continues to exude what one exasperated healthcare professional referred to as her “American energy”. Barron savours the insult, leans into it, just as she nourishes herself on any unexpected bitchfest that arises out of slyly slagging off a mutual acquaintance. The 42-year-old even revels in being slut-shamed on public transport, just so long as she's not dismissed as old, wearing the badge with pride, an unlikely signifier of family unity that she can try, at least, to shove down the throat of a patronising acquaintance. Pacing and capering across the stage with a grim resolve rather than unfettered abandon, Barron is perceptive and wittily probing about the make-up of modern relationships, while being thoroughly candid about her own. She remains a great anecdotalist, laying bare the darkest aspects of her psyche, hazarding compelling guesses at the make-up of others'. But an unfortunate side effect of her understandable framing caveats for a couple of potentially triggering tales, is that by briefly coming out of the story, she highlights the effort in telling it, the work she's doing throughout her hour. That's a shame because the closing third of Hard Feelings makes significant comedy capital out of a heartbreaking episode, the daring and skill with which it's accomplished manifestly transparent. Jay Richardson
CABARET & VARIETY
The Working Girls of Soho *
Greenside @ Infirmary Street (venue 236)
What a glorious idea for a show. The Working Girls of Soho. The lady gangsters of Soho. The Marvellous Medames of Soho. Told by a woman who, herself, was a fabulous and feted niche-icon there in the 1980s. Josephine Pembroke and Pussies Galore were the darlings of the gay clubs, and the tales that she could have told us would have made an extraordinary hour. But she didn't. She did songs (she can't sing), from musical theatre (she can't act) with a little light choreography (she can't dance). We get three pointless, time-consuming costume changes. And no sense of anything other than her terrifying ego. As she launched into Sondheim's I'm Still Here I so fervently wished that I wasn't. Kate Copstick
Liam Farrelly, God's Brother-in-Law ***
Just the Tonic Nucleus (Just the Sub-Atomic Room) (Venue 393)
As reigning Scottish Comedian of the Year and a BBC New Comedy Award finalist to boot, there's a fair amount of scrutiny on 21-year-old Liam Farrelly as the next great hope of Caledonian stand-up, not tempered by the fact that the Paisley native's vocal intonations so closely resemble those of Kevin Bridges', albeit a little more nasally. Like Bridges once did, he opens his set by explaining how he has to slow down and enunciate when he performs in London. Yet Farrelly also has to speak more clearly at his baby classes, having recently become a young father, his scrambling immaturity still a cut above his social grenade mates vying to babysit. He has a closer relationship to his Catholicism than Bridges too, what with his sister being a nun and he, by association with a bride of Christ, God's brother-in-law. A comedic trump card that begets several amusing routines, he can also invoke it whenever an otherwise unconnected bit of material needs a punchline bolted on. There's a youthful rawness and unpolished edge to Farrelly and he superbly builds up the picture of his world in your mind's eye. Plus, the terrier-like way he gets stuck into a religious protest against his comedy is laudably ambitious, if rather too long not to incur diminishing rewards. Jay Richardson
Jamie MacDonald: Reasonably Adjusted ****
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Sportsmans) (Venue 14)
At 42, Jamie MacDonald is still evolving as a storytelling comic, with his latest Fringe hour the most accomplished I've so far seen from the Glaswegian. Latching on to a 2017 poll in the New York Times that found blindness is perceived as the worst affliction of all, worse even than death, the blind comic has something to kick against, which he does with a sense of affront and consistent, playful mischief. He doesn't gloss over the annoyances of his condition, citing the tactical disadvantage it places him at in arguments with his wife, unable to spontaneously flounce out of a room with the final word. And when her carelessness robs him of his talismanic blue disabled parking badge – “The Perk!” – he's entertainingly apoplectic. But Reasonably Adjusted is an unforced stressing of the positives of MacDonald's blindness. As someone who went to a tough mainstream school, his classmates found other things to mock about him. He hasn't always been blind either he acknowledges at the top of the show, his disability the product of a degenerative disease. His tales from his childhood as his vision reduced have a poignancy but they're waggish over and above that. Certainly, he won't be patronised, embracing the challenges of his condition and leading one virtue signalling Good Samaritan on a merry dance of the blind leading the blind, playing dumb to have his fun. Dismissively referring to able-bodied people as “Normals”, he makes it seem as if he's part of an exclusive club, his exceptionally detailed directions, spanning the senses and wilder, protracted fringes of perception, prompting a flustered response from the stranger simply seeking to know the way to the pub. Cranky, yet simultaneously about as puckish as a 6'4” middle-aged man can be, MacDonald's continued rise through the comedy ranks seems assured. Jay Richardson
An Evening With Tara Boland ***
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Turret) (Venue 14)
Once seen, never forgotten, absurdist clown Tara Boland is a rubber-faced, rather touched loon whose slight, late-night performance amuses as it mildly baffles. With the persona of a deluded wannabe, she rather imagined she'd be an established star by now, a versatile “titan of the performing industry” packing out the Apollo. Sharing insights into the acts who've inspired her, she gives her rendition of Rihanna's Where Have You Been, while her sensuality she attributes to Marilyn Monroe, shrieking her way through I Wanna Be Loved By You. Miley Cyrus, Sia and er, Aqua are also given a nod, with a variety of costume changes, silly props, a bit of easy, back-and-forth crowd interaction and a general sense of someone clinging desperately to their dream in the face of general indifference. As a spectacle it's gently entertaining, though the level of commitment Boland puts into it might surprise you. And she succeeds in getting her applause breaks through sheer bloody-minded application and a willingness to be visibly vulnerable beneath the mask. A compelling oddball, if that's what you're after. Jay Richardson
Aurie Styla: Green ***
Pleasance Courtyard (The Attic) (Venue 33)
Fringe stand-up truly focusing on the slog of the Covid pandemic has been relatively rare this year. And Aurie Styla's fleshing out of last year's show at the reduced Fringe, is, perhaps, a cautionary tale as to why. What he gains in terms of universality and relatability, he loses in terms of originality, despite his somewhat contrived efforts to bolt a “Green” theme onto the hour. A confident, charismatic act who is nevertheless upfront about his spiralling anxiety, he recounts his Netflix persecution, being assailed with suggestions about apocalyptic movies just as the world shut down, as if that's not part of the well-known nature of algorithms. He's better on the more personal aspects of his experience, his cantankerous, vaccine resistant Caribbean grandmother's admission to hospital with Covid prompting an anguished, night drive for the comic, only for her to belligerently refuse to do what she's told when he gets there. He appreciates that he's going out on a limb by singing the praises of Rishi Sunak, but he knows what he's doing and it's an amusing enough means to an end. Happily, he closes strongly, his grudging arrival at therapy stirring both his pique at the process but also the cocky belief that he's now trained to help others. And his thoughts on his recent move as a black man to an exceedingly white village in Bedfordshire are characterised by sly, satirical intent. Jay Richardson