It takes a stage and spotlights to bring out the real class and character of some comics ... and an endearing monkey doll helps too, writes Kate Copstick
Nina Conti is Monkey, Underbelly Bristo Square (Venue 302) ****
Zoe Lyons: Entry Level Human, Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14) ****
Marcus Brigstocke: Devil May Care, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) ***
Hal Cruttenden: Chubster, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) ****
In the ever-expanding Big Pink Brochure, all shows are Fringe shows. But some are Fringier than others. And if you worry about walking on the wild side – although I cannot recommend it highly enough – there are various ways to enjoy the fact that some of comedy’s best known performers are here, off the telly and In Real Life.
The newly refurbished McEwan Hall is about as “Fringe” as afternoon tea at the Signet Library, but its cavernous interior allows the maximum number of people to see Nina Conti, and that can only be a good thing.
She is a woman of, it seems, limitless imagination. She is, for the first half of this absolutely delightful show, entirely subsumed by Monkey. Once her plaything, then the vehicle for her naughty self, then her partner, and now … Monkey has taken over. This show is the apotheosis of the ventriloquist’s quasi-magical make-believe.
The artist is consumed by her creation and it is hilarious. One can bandy about terms like deconstruction and “meta”, but my single overwhelming reaction is laughter.
Monkey crowdsurfs, seduces and undergoes therapy in a desperate attempt to make the most of his brief existence.
So beguiling is this crazy confection that when Monk does things with his tail that a polite primate really shouldn’t, our entire row just goes “awwww”.
Once Conti emerges, the fun and the funny continue as she turns audience members into puppets with her ingenious talking masks.
This show needs the high dome of the McEwan Hall. It would blow the roof off anywhere else.
If you are very lucky, you will get to see someone live and enjoy the realisation that they are so, so much better than they ever are on TV. The perfect example this year is Zoe Lyons. If you think she is hilarious behind a panel- show desk, just wait till she gets on a live stage. Entry Level Human is a supremely classy piece of comedy writing and Zoe, unplugged, as it were, has a charm and a command of a room that you do not get to appreciate on a screen.
I do like to see crazy comedy flung at the wall in a room that smells of death to see what sticks and what slides, but my goodness is it a thrill to see a properly skilled, assured performer time and turn her material, toss in gossamer-funny asides, dance a running gag across 20 minutes and whisk you from topic to topic while holding you safely in the cleverly woven net of her hour.
Even Brexit is freshly funny in her hands, as are toast, coffee and the inexorable disappointment of surprise gifts. Her impression of a Weegie fly will live with me always. TV does not deserve her.
The other occasional excitement to be had on the Fringe is seeing a brilliant and established star trying out something completely new.
To be fair, character comedy is not exactly new to Marcus Brigstocke, it has always been something he does better than most. But his latest guise is something of a gamble. Not everyone is necessarily going to have sympathy for the Devil. Lucifer. Yes, this August, Matthew, Marcus Brigstocke is going to be Satan, red in face and hands, horned but otherwise very smartly dressed.
At the moment there is a strong sense of his simply reapproaching old targets with a new frock on and hoping the freshness of the style will mitigate the slightly stale content. But you cannot argue with what he says and you cannot deny the humour.
Brigstocke is a ferociously smart man and you can see he is still playing with the parameters of the ploy. And, while I can imagine many audiences will be putty in his hands, we are more like a lump of breeze block in the big barn of Pleasance Beyond. But if a comedy master craftsman at work is what you want, this is your show.
Finally, if you just want to see a comic who will fulfil, live, every expectation you might have of him having seen him on the telly, you cannot really do better than Hal Cruttenden. Chubster is a great, cuddly, adorable, funbundle of a show. The campest man never to have been befriended by Dorothy is the comedy gift that keeps on giving. He seems perennially, genuinely delighted to be on stage and words tumble out of him in great colourful, enthusiastic explosions like a verbal version of that advert where everything the man touches turns to Skittles. We get his lovely but scary Northern Irish wife, politics and parenting, his sweet internet trolls, sex and football, advice on how to tell when a war is coming, and quite a lot about death. Who knew it could be so funny?
From the moment he channels his inner Elsa, through the medium of interpretive dance, till his imagined death scene, he fills our hour with joy and giggles.
There is nothing on telly that gives you the feeling live comedy does. And the closer you get to it, the better. That is what August in Edinburgh is about.
• Nina Conti is Monkey until 27 August, today 7pm. Zoe Lyons: Entry Level Human until 26 August, today 5:45pm. Marcus Brigstocke: Devil May Care until 26 August, today 6:30pm. Hal Cruttenden: Chubster until 26 August, today 9pm.