Painfully funny magician is very far from Hokum

Pete Firman - Hokum ****

Underbelly, Cowgate

DO you believe in magic? Well if you don't, you'd better have another good reason to explain Pete Firman shoving needles through his arm and popping a live mouse into a blender.

Actually, blame Edinburgh council for the last one. He substituted the mouse trick when they wouldn't let him eat a lit cigarette on stage.

Fret not, tricks are exactly what Firman specialises in, reassuring the packed audience throughout his performance. There are distressed cries of "How could you?" when his rodent friend meets setting number one on the liquidiser, but these are swiftly followed by an audible sigh of relief. Yes, the audience are cheering for a mouse.

But that's not the only thing they're cheering for. Unlike many other magicians, the star of Channel 4's Dirty Tricks is as much a stand-up comedian as he is a master of sleight-of-hand. He even goes so far as to drop his trousers to show how the disappearing hanky trick is achieved.

"It's an illusion, it's got nothing to do with reality," he cheerily tells people, while happily thrusting two large needles through his forearm. The crowd groan as blood dribbles down. Firman beams. "You're taking this magic thing far too seriously."

Everyone seems willing to participate, with not one person refusing to join him on stage when asked to help. One woman even volunteers her arm for the aforementioned needle trick.

Very funny and delightfully entertaining, Hokum is over far, far too quickly.

• Until August 26

Richard Bucket Overflows! An Audience with Clive Swift Freemason's Hall, George Street

IT'S not Bucket, it's Bouquet. Thank goodness that, unlike the popular sit-com which made him a household name, Clive Swift has more than one joke in his arsenal.

Roy Clarke's Keeping Up Appearances, in which Swift played the hen-pecked husband of the insufferable Hyacinth Bucket (Patricia Routledge), amused millions.

But what many people may not realise is that, before turning his hand to single-gag, mildly misogynistic television comedies, 71-year-old Swift was a well-regarded theatre actor, working alongside the likes of Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness and Judi Dench.

For eight years during the 1960s, he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, taking over the lead in Troilus and Cressida when Peter O'Toole left to work on Lawrence of Arabia.

Swift is also a talented musician, and his debut Fringe show is interspersed with his own compositions. These range from the jaunty The Just Pastiche to the downright sad Gone. He has a pleasant, if unremarkable voice.

He was accompanied by Claire Greenway on piano, although they did swap roles on a couple of occasions. When she wasn't tinkling the ivories, Greenway was coming out with rather inane and obviously scripted comments such as: "So, you must have appeared alongside a lot of famous actors over the years, Clive. Can you give us any amusing anecdotes?"

Anecdotes? Yes. Amusing? Not particularly.

Swift's numerous TV appearances have included guest spots on everything from The Liver Birds to Minder and two different incarnations of Doctor Who.

The first was in 1985. His second appearance will be in this year's Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned. This is something he says is more exciting for his grandchildren than it is for him. In the episode, he guest stars alongside a little-known Aussie performer called Kylie Minogue.

"We exchanged ideas about songs and song-writing, but we didn't really meet in the middle," joked Swift. But this was not an audience of Whovians or Kylie wannabes.

What his predominantly grey-haired fans really wanted to hear about was Keeping Up Appearances

.

A story about a special effects shot going wrong and almost setting fire to Hyacinth, Onslow et al brought the biggest laughs of the afternoon.

Until August 27

Sarah Kendall: My Very First Kidnapping Assembly @ George Street

AUSTRALIAN comedienne Sarah Kendall, pictured left, is always a Fringe winner, so the news that this year she's acting out a story with colleagues Joanna Neary and Justin Edwards might instil some hesitation in fans of her previous shows.

Shouldn't she just stick to regular stand-up?

No, frankly. My Very First Kidnapping is absolutely brilliant, and, let's face it, there aren't many shows you can leave to the sounds of 80s chart-topper Respectable with your sides still aching. This might be the only Fringe show ever that will use Mel and Kim to bring tears of laughter to your eyes and still be funny days later.

The basis for Kendall's latest turn stems from an (actually quite scary) teenage experience where she may or may not have found herself at the mercy of a serial killer during a university initiation ceremony. True, this doesn't sound so funny in translation, that's why Kendall's the one on stage, thankfully.

Neary and Edwards play various roles, including Kendall's friends, family and lecturers. How the trio manage to keep a straight face is anyone's guess, especially during an inspired flashback sequence to when Kendall and her best friend won a high school dance competition.

Once Kendall sets the scene and really gets going the comedy is relentless and, in parts, priceless.

Until August 27

Josie Long: Trying Is Good Pleasance Courtyard

SARCASM and irony are naturally popular with comedians.

It might come as something of a surprise, then, to learn that Josie Long's show, Trying Is Good, is neither. She may even be one of the most upbeat comedians on the Fringe this year.

"Effort", she asserts, "ought to be rewarded", and with that she begins distributing pieces of Satsuma ("a nice, sharing fruit") to the people in the packed room that she thought had made the most effort when laughing.

Owing a little to the Eddie Izzard school of banter, Long wittered cheerily away, gathering a great many of those laughs. Describing herself as a renaissance woman, she then went on to get from scientology to minesweeper games, while linking Lily Allen and Baloo The Bear more than convincingly.

Buddhists "pranking about" and the joys of beating up one's own nine-year-old self led to an inspiring tale of effort by Australians she once met who made something with the unlikely name of Alex's Wuppertaler Bread.

The feel of the show was distinctly homemade. Not in a cheap and nasty way, but in a bid to prove the value of making an effort. Long had even enlisted the help of her younger brother in preparing an introduction CD.

The audience made a bit of an effort too: Having made a gag earlier about the old wives' tale, where fruit peel can reveal the initial of someone's future spouse, a woman threw her orange peel in front of Long, surprising her. Obviously, so impressed were the audience, that they had decided to reward her too.