Fringe comedy reviews: John-Luke Roberts | Esther Manito | Bobby Mair | Simon Evans | Friend (The One With Gunther) | Rob Rouse | Wet Ass Rookies | Leo Kearse |Jody Kamali and Friends

Cautious experimentation has been the mark of this year's relaxed, reduced Fringe, typified by John-Luke Roberts: It Is Better – Live! (***), a gentle, jazzy companion to the absurdist comic's album in which he disassembles and digresses on the phrase “it is better to have loved and lost than ...”. Neither as high-concept or restrictive as that description suggests, with the inventive Roberts musing philosophically and ludicriously on thwarted romance, a late father and much else besides, it's a patchy but generally absorbing hour.

John Luke Roberts' Terrible Wonderful Adaptations

The same, sadly, cannot be said for John-Luke Roberts: Terrible Wonderful Adaptations (**), which betrayed the participating comics' ring rust on the night I caught it. As The Terrible Old Crone, Roberts invites acts to adapt a text, updating spells and invocations website Grimoire.org for the 21st century this evening. As he's shown with his 24-hour shows, Mark Watson toils ceaselessly to extract laughs from any situation but he was ultimately beaten here. James McIntosh fared better, adapting the show's premise to cavort in a green onesie, but his Soup Group sketchmate Phil O'Shea floundered. Shaparak Khorsandi probably had the best set, capably bending her erotic spells into an advert for her 1990s-themed show happening elsewhere, while Isabelle Farah at least offered a flavour of her character acting abilities.

Esther Manito: #NotAllMen (***)feels like a watershed second hour for the increasingly assured Anglo-Lebanese stand-up. Shame it's not had a full Fringe run, as the social trends she's exploring are shifting so fast, much of what she's pithily critiquing will feel out-of-date next year. From her intersectional axes of gender and ethnicity, Manito identifies the prejudice she's encountered from childhood to parenthood, skilfully linking the personal and political, anti-Arab sentiment to the battle of the sexes. Ranging too widely in subject matter, her animated, expressive delivery nevertheless more than holds the room.

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Consistently, disproportionately taunting an audience member who had the misfortune to make a stray remark, Bobby Mair: Cockroach (WIP) (****)is ample evidence of why the Canadian import needs stand-up to give his personality context. Puckish, contrarian, analysing the complexities of mental health but rabble rousing with a simplistic refrain of “Free Britney!” just for the hell of it, Mair channels his dysfunction and dark thoughts into memorable anecdotes and punchy, even persuasive points of view, entertainingly presenting humanity in a less than flattering light.

Mischief abounds in Simon Evans: The Work of the Devil (****) too, as the veteran comic is compelled to deliver his most personal show yet thanks to a recent revelation. A more polished version of a tale he brought to the 2019 Fringe, it opens conventionally enough with Evans betraying bemused incredulity at contemporary identity politics, his articulate, superior tone sceptical of the social change underway. All very funny but beneath the surface, he's discreetly seeding the foundations of a reveal, in an elegantly crafted show that merits revisiting.

Less convincing is the nostalgic justification for Brendan Murphy's return to Central Perk for Friend (The One With Gunther) (***), in which the Potted Potter creator presents a revisionist history of the hit US sitcom from the perspective of overlooked barista Gunther. Sure, the recent television reunion of the six stars has reignited interest. And more generally, Friends' migration to Netflix has prompted a younger generation to protest its homophobia, fatphobia and lack of diversity. That aspect just about vindicates this fitfully amusing hour, as Murphy pokes fun at how badly it's dated. Still, his portrayal of James Michael Tyler's character is all over the shop. And this is chiefly a fan-friendly checklist of the show's biggest plot points.

Belting out his opening disclaimer, a song and dance number that reaffirms the title of his show, Rob Rouse: No Refunds (WIP) (****) is a big, daft snapshot of the lengths the garrulous comic has gone to in order to keep himself sane over lockdown. This is a hodge-podge of set-pieces crammed into an hour but scarcely less entertaining for that, as Rouse shares his juvenile tips on enlivening Zoom conversations and muses on the multi-faceted nature of the modern garden centre. His closing Neil Young homage underwhelms. But it's more than made up for by a crowd-engaging reinterpretation of Donna Summer's I Feel Love, addressing his disquiet at getting older.

Considerably more wet behind the ears, at least in performance terms, and elsewhere to judge from their name, Wet Ass Rookies (***) is a solid showcase of Scottish stand-up from three relative newcomers. The amiable, rascally Angus Coutts contrasts his cynical perspective on life with that of his younger Canadian flatmate and has a bit of fun mocking Americans for a set that, while never groundbreaking, bounds along on his innate likeability. Michael Welch attracts considerable laughs for an introduction playing on his enigmatic ethnicity. And he has an impulse to push at boundaries, even if the execution isn't always as sharp as his intentions. Still, a tale of him being mugged while on ecstasy is compelling. Ralph Brown, meanwhile, prioritises the story of a date gone awry in Budapest, rich in amusing detail and self-deprecation, climaxing in humiliation and exceptionally well told.

Somewhat hypocritically accusing fellow comic Hari Kondabolu of crying victim to sell himself, Leo Kearse – Cancel Culture (****) finds the avowedly right-wing, contentious stand-up making a claim for the realities of censorship. Though he's certainly been wronged by liberal elements of the comedy industry, jokes that conventionally might be termed “punching down” and his overplay of aspects of cancel culture are offset and outweighed by insights into his hippy upbringing and an incontrovertibly high gag rate. Whatever your politics, dancing on the line of acceptability remains potent for comedy.

Blurring lines between character and prop comedy, deprived of audience interaction by Covid, Jody Kamali and Friends (***)is a real curate's egg, decidedly uninspired for long sections but blessed with a winning finale. From macho former darts player Mike Daly to a barely comprehensible vampire, Kamali's characters are painted with the broadest of strokes and lean heavily on their accompanying music. However, the panache with which he contrives an epic romance for his Las Vegas show turn, The Man of Mystery, with little beyond an ironing board and rubber gloves, demands applause.

Simon Evans: The Work of the Devil, Assembly George Square, 8.30pm, until 22 August. Friend (The One With Gunther), Pleasance at EICC, 6pm, until 29 August. Wet Ass Rookies, Beehive Inn, 8.30pm, until 29 August. Leo Kearse – Cancel Culture, Laughing Horse @ The Free Sisters, 6pm, until 30 August. Jody Kamali and Friends, Assembly Roxy, 7.45pm, until 22 August. All other shows have now ended.

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