Fringe comedy reviews: Jordan Gray | Rajiv Karia | Sian Davies | Rosie Holt | Luca Cupani
Five stars for Jordan Gray, three strong Fringe debuts, and a welcome return for Luca Cupani
Jordan Gray: Is It a Bird? *****
Archly satirical, intimately personal and radically revealing, yet packaged in a heady medley of pop culture whimsy, tremendous songs and expertly executed stand-up, Jordan Gray aspires to the exceptionalism of superheroes and achieves it with her phenomenal second Fringe hour. That she has novelty value as a trans performer is unquestionable. Yet despite also being an absolute nerd, she's a proud one and makes hers' seem like the only identity worth having, so triumphantly accomplished is she at conveying her experience. There are obvious echoes of Tim Minchin in her oeuvre, particularly in a faith-baiting number about Jesus Christ's credentials as various Universal classic monsters. The Essex comic's big hair, hyperbolic vocal inflexions and puckish joie de vivre also means she can't escape comparisons to Russell Brand, so cannily affords them the briefest of acknowledgements. Alhough she's hardly in his recently much-diminished shadow.
With considerable economy, Gray delivers hilarious observations on Batman and the tale of meeting the dog of a family she was going to stay with, great stand-up that would grace any headlining club set, but which simultaneously teases out her origin story, her trans journey, former music career and marriage. Along the way, she makes the likes of Ricky Gervais and J.K. Rowling seem as ridiculous as the bat-obsessed caped crusader for their trans views, beautifully pastiching bigots' perception of her, blithely dismissing the culture wars. Throughout the show, she all but refuses to accept vulnerability, assuming her superiority to the mere mortals watching her, with only her delirious, self-conscious laughter at her own cheek and audacity evidence of any check on her ego. Channelling Superman for her statement finale, Is It A Bird? deserves all the acclaim coming to it, a romp and a riot of an hour that will undoubtedly pick up extra performances in a bigger venue.
Assembly George Square, until 28 August
Rajiv Karia: Gallivant ***
Growing up, Rajiv Karia didn't see many brown faces on television. And he implies he may have encountered racism when asked about returning to India. Yet he couches his response in a gag about British politeness and states at the top of his debut hour that his is not a gritty show, but rather a personal one about “the stupid things I do”. He's hardly ever visited the land of his forefathers and Gallivant is set up to compare the pioneering experience of his immigrant parents, coming to the UK from Uganda, and his stultifying middle-class existence in London, working in a vegan cafe. Mildly piqued at failing to find the adventure he foresaw in his youth, he's in a similar mould to Josh Widdicombe, getting low-level annoyed at things like his Pret A Manger subscription, spinning a crazed addiction scenario out of it. As a vegetarian, his job has instilled an inferiority complex in him towards vegans he maintains, while fuelling his utter disdain for pescatarians, Karia seethingly participating in a culinary culture war all by himself. With an easy, conversational style, he's good company, consistently funny and he satisfyingly wrings low-hanging fruit like conspiracy theories dry of their potential. But you yearn for a bit more of the ambition that fired his adolescence.
Pleasance Courtyard, until 28 August
Sian Davies: About Time ***
The entertaining origin story of a gay, working-class “dickhead” nudging 40, Sian Davies' debut hour draws lightly on her intersectional minority experience for a wry, retrospective look back at how she became who she is today. With a voice not heard so much in the mainstream media, her tales of rowdy, sports team hooliganism and naïve travelling around India nevertheless feel more familiar at a progressive arts festival, an undemanding account with just a smattering of left-wing political opinion and drugs hi-jinks to give it an idiosyncratic flavour. That's not entirely what's going on with About Time though, as it suddenly reveals itself to be a passionate cri de couer about the UK's treatment of some of its poorest and most vulnerable people and the character it forged in Davies through hardship and deprivation. Shifting her tone from matily familiar to angry polemical, it's an impressively held and delivered diatribe but one that hasn't come completely out of nowhere, with the comic having laid the groundwork for it with skilful, incremental seeding. The darkness is altogether more compelling and distinctive than the frothier aspects about developing world toilets that proceeded it, but Davies pulls them together with some aplomb.
Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 28 August
Rosie Holt: The Woman's Hour ***
Rosie Holt has built a considerable following with her online political parodies. So there's the sense of an established star gracing the cramped Pleasance Attic, someone with a reputation to uphold, despite this only being her Fringe debut. So successful have been Holt's send-ups, fooling politicians and great swathes of social media alike into imagining they're real, that she's a vessel in which people pour their own bias, decried as a loony Lefty, Tory stooge or dull centrist depending on your voting intentions. The Woman's Hour is a semi-successful rejoinder to such pigeonholing. Her best character is arguably her topical opener, an MP cynically defending, then plunging the knife into the Prime Minister in almost the same breath, the satire bludgeoning yet deliciously done. Harriet Langley-Swindon, her right-wing, anti-woke “opinionist” is also strong, her cynical button-pushing in pursuit of a soundbite knowing no bounds. Elsewhere, property porn TV presenter and right-winger Kirstie Allsopp dishes it out but is unable to take it in song, crooning Why Are You So Mean?, and Russell Brand garbles dangerous conspiracy nonsense in a desperate bid for relevancy. As the hour unfolds, Holt rather overeggs her pudding with grotesques and the wit is somewhat drowned in knowing meta-THEATRICALITY but she's an undoubted talent.
Pleasance Courtyard, until 29 August
Luca Cupani: Happy Orphan ****
Edinburgh is the perfect place to enjoy comedians from afar doing stand-up in English. Few of them manage to the witty end of funny as cleverly as Luca Cupani. English just has so many words, and the verbal choreography is tricky. Luckily, Cupani is its Giovanni Pernice. From the very beginning, you know you are with someone who understands the rhythm of funny. None of the topics he dances across seems, on the face of it, to have much potential for comedy, but it is the mark of a great comic to take the unlikely, the dry and the tragic and squeeze comedy out of them. And he does. It is an hour of unexpectable laughs from a comic fast becoming a maestro of the art. World War II ? Hilarious. The Renaissance, fascism, radiation sickness, the Catholic Church and his mother's death ? Big laugh highlights on the journey of this show. The old-fashioned epithet “never a dull moment” is so very true here. There is almost a laugh in every line. Not a 'gag', but a laugh. Cupani is becoming a phenomenally entertaining storyteller.
Luckily for us, he is also a raging hypochondriac with the stand-up world's most delightful line in body part anthropomorphism. Fans of Luca's chatty body parts will remember with great fondness, his first year at the Fringe and his charming double act with his penis. Nowadays his chats are with internal organs but no less funny.
I cannot imagine anyone coming to his show and not leaving in a warm glow of funny. I know, there is the dead mother thing. And a small amount of pornography, which is, of course, a terrible sin. But Luca is (do not judge) the eponymous Happy Orphan of the title and, once he tells you the whole story, you will be happy too.
Just the Tonic at the Caves, until 28 August