Briefs: Bite Club ****
Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadow, until 27 August
With their combination of circus, boylesque, queer mischief and fabulous idiocy, the Briefs gang have become Fringe staples. At the start of this bang-on return to the festival, host Shivannah takes a moment to recognise how much things have changed since their last stint here in 2019, and even to ask indulgence if they seem out of practice. They needn’t worry on that front – this is just as tight, pacy and fun as previous outings, with a couple of new twists.
Hosted under the big top at the Underbelly’s Circus Hub, Bite Club doesn’t stray far from a winning formula. The night is topped and tailed by group numbers, the opener boasting spectacular feathered outfits and the closer showcasing each member of the troupe doing their solo thing simultaneously in a whirl of crimson overstimulation. In between, there’s an aristocratic twist to Mark ‘Captain Kidd’ Winmill’s iconic aquatic trapeze act, a dynamic, Fosse-esque striptease from puckish Brett Rosengreen, and gorgeous aerial work from Thom Worrell. Cheeky Louis Biggs, meanwhile, has been working on his ball control, and also his juggling skills. Each is on great form and the company’s palpable camaraderie gives it all an extra glow.
The central novelty here is the addition of singer-songwriter Sahara Beck, whose live vocals form a throughline for the whole show. Beck is a potent addition, characterful and versatile, moving across soulful, rocky and playful modes and handily holding her own in a solo number. (Given all this, a peculiarly self-congratulatory storybook-themed interlude seems a bit unnecessary.) At once friendly, formidable and idiotically fabulous, it’s good to have the troupe back. Ben Walters
Casey Balsham: Inconceivable ****
Just the Tonic at The Mash House, until 28 August
That Casey Balsham has chosen such intensely personal subject matter for her Fringe debut speaks to her confidence in her stand-up. Granted, her efforts to get pregnant at 40, after multiple setbacks and false dawns, have been her overriding preoccupation for the last four years. But although Inconceivable is dense, not skimping on the details of the fertilisation science she’s endured, still less the emotional wrench it’s been for the New Yorker and her husband, and that it’s a messy, inelegantly structured account that skips around and maybe covers too much ground, it’s also really affecting and runs a gamut of laughs, from wry, to dark, to deep and back again. With acceptance that the odds are against them, the hope that sustains Balsham doesn’t blind her to her personal faults and those of her spouse, their proposal tale in Paris sacrilegiously outrageous for someone of her Jewish background. And she’s not elevating the process of making babies to sublimity, recounting her sexual past and the drunken couplings that have got her friends and family knocked up with candidly filthy and indiscreet relish. Despite the vulnerability of her account, as you’re aligned with her undergoing invasive procedures and other serious health issues, at no point does the story overwhelm. Taking in everything from the impact of Roe vs Wade being overturned and abortion politics in the US, to the very real possibility that Balsham could announce her pregnancy at any show in her run, it’s an appealing roller-coaster of an hour that she keeps on track with well-judged manipulation of tone, easy likeability and an eye for the gags in a situation that affects many, but which is little discussed in public discourse or even art. Jay Richardson
Chelsea Birkby: No More Mr Nice Chelsea ****
Just the Tonic at The Caves, until 28 August
Curtseying on at least one punchline and with the slightly fey air of one who’s played up her elfin qualities to accommodate the Lord of the Rings geeks she attracts, Chelsea Birkby is nevertheless anticipating and countering the inevitable reviews of her as a nice, well-spoken young woman. Given her smiling, sunny and girlish disposition, it is, she acknowledges, a bold opening gambit for her to rebrand with her Fringe debut. But this is a really strong introduction and she’s a more complex, multi-faceted character than she’s often allowed herself to appear, despite a creative bent that saw her write her first memoir in 2003, aged 11, and her precocious inclination towards penning poetry about terrorism. The first of her family to go to university (her posh tones belying her humbler background), Birkby was educated in the primacy of being nice and a people pleaser by blandly facile chart-toppers the Black Eyed Peas. Yet from school and the playground she picked up confusing, conflicted messages about sex and drugs, with one anti-narcotics campaign making a particular impression. And her self-identity crisis was exacerbated at university, where she struggled to reconcile the class differences of the two worlds she now inhabited, embracing drinking and sex with an intensity borne of destroying her nice girl image.
Despite the complete command Birkby has of her tale, hanging very funny observational material on pop culture, fast fashion and a brilliant bit on the weird popularity of murder mystery entertainment off her autobiography, No More Mr Nice Chelsea goes to some pretty dark places, revealing her mental health struggles and in one particularly disturbing instance, the exploitation she was open to. Ultimately, she's neither simply a nice or nasty girl. But she is a hugely promising and already accomplished stand-up, surely destined for greater things. Jay Richardson
Nina Gilligan: Late Developer ***
Just the Tonic at The Tron, until 28 August
A late developer in all aspects of life, Nina Gilligan only became a comic at 40. Now, having just turned 50, she’s making up for lost time by putting the world to rights, with a “fuck it” list rather than a bucket one. Closing her hour with semi-earnest messages to fellow middle-aged women, to men and to young people, she’s earnt the right to do so with a frank, sometimes dark, sometimes filthy hour of hard-earnt wisdom and not a little twinkling mischief. Despairing at her husband and children, Gilligan has all the hallmarks of a stressed, put-upon mother letting off a bit of steam. Except her good-for-nothing son is at least good for dispatching pest wildlife for her; her husband's on some spectrum or other; and her daughter attributes Gilligan’s messy, chaotic character to undiagnosed ADHD. Certainly, the now perimenopausal comic’s sex life has never been straightforward. Coloured by the guilt of the Catholic family she was adopted into, puberty came late to Gilligan and she describes losing her virginity in uproarious, ravenous terms, while her 20s were defined by a pattern of encounters that might best be summarised as selflessly charitable. For all she has her gripes and bugbears like anyone, she’s generally a vivacious, life-embracing performer, with a cheeky, ready wit. Jay Richardson