Comedy review: Doctor Brown - Befrdfgth, Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61), Edinburgh

The bad Doctor Brown sets up a sadistic motif that underpins his performance. Picture: Jane Barlow
The bad Doctor Brown sets up a sadistic motif that underpins his performance. Picture: Jane Barlow
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DOCTOR Brown’s latest inexplicable hour begins with an amorphous mass lurking mischievously behind the theatre curtain, kicking out at some of those coming in, snatching away the odd handbag or jacket into the darkness.

Doctor Brown – Befrdfgth

Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61)

Star rating: * * * *

After a few coquettish peeks through, the bad doctor finally emerges, draped in priestly black robes like some dark lord of misrule, no less enigmatic and mute a presence. Enacting a playlet in which a beggar is ignored and whipped, he sets up a sadistic motif which, to judge from previous form, might well underpin the performance.

There’s greater sexualisation to his clowning now. With a disregard for personal space and the propriety of bodies, his gambits reinforce that virtually everything is his creative canvas, to define and position as he pleases. In a taste-stretching finale to a playful bullfighting sequence, he clambers snugly inside the slain beast. Teasingly provocative, he later abandons an audience member to look after his baby.

For all this could seem intimidating – at one point he scrambles over the seating bank, instigating growling contests with the audience over who commands the territory – his transgressions feel more good-natured, communal and downright silly than in festivals past. The moment at which the last sceptic succumbs to his mysterious charm is surely his depiction of a bicycle trip, the crowd coerced into sounding his bell, horn and gong as he robustly hurls himself into the mime. After that, everyone is completely on board. So when the scenes begin to self-reference in a circular folding over, he’s more conductor than lone actor.

The illusion of spontaneity is certainly key to Befrdfgth’s effectiveness. Any cynicism about what is obviously careful structuring of the piece is dismissible thanks to the élan with which Brown ad-libs and adapts to his mark’s reactions, championing those that approach his own lack of self-consciousness. Successfully retaining artistic daring in a show that has broad, mainstream appeal, he deserves all the plaudits coming to him.

• Until 26 August. Today 9:05pm.