Edinburgh Festival Fringe comedy reviews: Shelf | Horseplay | Lew Fitz | Isabelle Farah | Ted Hill

A storming gender-experiment musical comedy is a standout show for Jay Richardson, plus a queer, dystopian playlet and an obsession with US Presidents

Shelf: Hair ****

Pleasance Courtyard, until 28 August

An absolutely storming show, this – revealing, fun and easy to fall in love with – Shelf are a musical double act and accidental experiment in gender. Rachel WD was born to gay parents, has been out as gay herself and perceived as a boy since forever. Meanwhile, Ruby Clyde has been seen as a pretty girl for most of her life and only recently came out and started presenting in a masculine way, her evolution significantly facilitated by the eponymous haircut of their show title. Friends since they were ten years old and Shelf since they were 15, the pair semi-earnestly class WD as the “control” in their social analysis, as they relate how the world sees Clyde differently since she changed her look.

Shelf PIC: Corinne CummingShelf PIC: Corinne Cumming
Shelf PIC: Corinne Cumming

Regardless, there was plenty of spectrum of sex and gender to negotiate before then. And the tale of their friendship is an endearing one, their experience full of twists and turns worthy of the spunky, boy-detective mystery solvers they also fleetingly identify as. Through a variety of song styles, Clyde is initially established as the guitar-playing “straight” one and WD as the dancing clown. Yet the nuance of their personal journeys and droll songwriting entertainingly mix this up and afford some fascinating insights into the adaptability of modern sexuality. A patchwork of intersectionality, it begets some fine, occasionally swaggering tunes, with WD gyrating animatedly to her own erotically charged obliviousness on You Can’t Bully Sexy. Setting themselves up as on-going, personal works-in-progress, Shelf's show, by contrast, is smoothly slick enough to cover a multitude of issues while sustaining a high gag count, yet loose enough for WD in particular to play about with and engage the crowd. A delightfully assured debut.

Horseplay: Bareback ***

Underbelly, Cowgate, until 28 August

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Internalising the fear and deprivations of lockdown, Bareback is a late-night, queer, dystopian playlet set in a sexless afterlife, a pressure cooker of scarcely repressed creative inclination and silly, horny energy. Conceived and performed by Kathy Maniura, arguably the standout performer in last year's So You Think You’re Funny? competition, and Derek Mitchell, the duo play all the characters, from Timothée Chalamet, persecuted by the guileless acting of his buttoned-up co-star; an artisanal dildo maker; a delightful Wife of Bath from Chaucer; and a talking vagina and anus, desperate to share their artistic endeavours. The principal characters though, are a Greta Thunberg-channelling afterlife administrator, who has outlawed sex as destabilising, and a television gossip queen, whose arrival and insatiable need to get all the juice fosters chaos in her new surroundings. Initially baffling, Bareback gradually coalesces into an affecting protest at inhuman containment. And, although it repeatedly threatens to disappear up its own fundament, the show makes its point and garners considerable absurdist laughs along the way. Mitchell does a fine line in irrepressible diva, with Maniura the more enigmatic, unpredictable one offering a contrast in style that’s simpatico and winning.

Lew Fitz: Soft Lad ***

Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 29 August

On a mission of atonement, Lew Fitz affords significant prodigal son vibes to his appealing Fringe debut. “Full of piss and vinegar”, the Mancunian’s thin, rodenty intensity is at least partly attributable to an eye condition he suffers from. But he’s an anxious, haunted young man, too, his tale beginning with his lockdown breakdown and first panic attack, at a genteel dinner party. Growing up poor on Moss Side, he couldn’t wait to escape. And, somewhat unprecedentedly, he played his way out of the ghetto in a posh, historically female, sport, winning England caps and a scholarship in the US. Despite his best efforts, though, Fitz’s American dream didn’t pan out as expected and he eventually slunk back to London with his tail between his legs. Anything but return to Manchester if he could help it. Candid and repeatedly given to splenetic eruptions, his is, at bottom, a sad tale. But Fitz enlivens it with his restless agitation and some accomplished storytelling, vividly painting a mad yet credible picture of his eccentric upbringing and culture clash with the Americans, his self-mockery bordering on self-harm. Ultimately, you hope he finds peace or at least can continue to channel his pain as positively into his stand-up.

Isabelle Farah: Irresponsabelle ***

Assembly George Square, until 28 August

Having reached her mid-30s, Isabelle Farah thought she would have accomplished a whole lot more than she has by now. Still single, childless and creatively stymied, unable to make the transition to becoming a comedian and actor full-time, she opens her show by literally casting around the floor of her venue for the aspects of herself that would allow her to salvage a semblance of pride. Though routinely self-abasing, the British-Lebanese comic is pretty cutting, too, about the sexism rife in her office job, having perceived the patriarchy in operation since she was performing aged eight. She dismisses the supposedly feminist trend for Girlbossing in persuasive terms, though her championing of France as a bastion of female empowerment is more dubious. Irresponsabelle is a mildly despairing hour, with a simmering undercurrent of anger. But the ebullient Farah is defiant. Dating is hard but she's got a winning, pro-active riposte to her mother’s concern about the shortness of her skirt. And she’s trying to manifest positivity, persuading the audience of her scrappy likeability, even if the universe still has to be convinced of rewarding her. Without building to any great personal revelation, this is a diverting, open admission of a mid-life wobble that at least rewards the listener.

Ted Hill: All the Presidents Man ***

Just the Tonic at the Mash House, until 28 August

If you’ve ever wondered why Gerald Ford is the sexiest of the US presidents, then Ted Hill’s joyfully quirky deep dive into the history of the most powerful office on the planet is the show for you. With PowerPoint, a thirst for trivia and an ADHD diagnosis that’s he channelled into an absolute obsession, Hill rattles through the various POTUS with a dizzying mix of fact, factoid, urban myth and ridiculous invention. With an autodidact’s enthusiasm, Hill’s childish energy belies the slickness of his tech and his irrepressible nerd’s fondness for graphs, obscure data correlations and occasional ventures into conspiracy theory territory. There’s great amusement in trying to sift the contrived from reality, with one Sesame Street-related fact absolutely mind-blowing, even if Ronald Reagan voicing Remy the Rat from Ratatouille is just as memorable. A Theodore Roosevelt quote serves as the show’s refrain, and the hour’s true purpose for Hill gradually emerges, a labour of love borne from darker motivations. That the comic has contrived such an effortlessly entertaining Fringe debut is to his tremendous credit in the circumstances, one you can just sit back, relax and enjoy as Richard Nixon incriminates himself all over again.