Sarah Kendall / Lucy Porter / Miranda Hart: It's All About Me! /
Nina Conti & Micky Flanagan / David O'Doherty /
Alex Horne: Making Fish Laugh /
Howard Read: The Big Howard Little Howard Show /
Gary Le Strange: Polaroid Suitcase / Die /
Reginald D. Hunter: White Woman
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2003

The Perrier comedy award is an annual ritual not just in itself, but as the occasion for dusting off various big comedy-biz questions: why does the award go so seldom to women? What about straight stand-up versus character or sketch work?

On the female front, a number of contenders are coming up but not, I think, quite in the top flight yet. Sarah Kendall's straightforward stand-up (*** Gilded Balloon at Cabaret Voltaire) gets better and better, and Lucy Porter (*** Underbelly) combines a themed set about lying (especially in sexual matters) with a bouncy-girly appeal that makes her show rather like watching a Blue Peter presenter in a porn marathon. Miranda Hart (*** Pleasance) is now delightfully accomplished at self-parodic character work: imagine Dawn French at her best, but shaped like a classical caryatid. And Nina Conti's smart, slightly postmodern ventriloquism is a joy, but her comedic partner this year Micky Flanagan renders it a show of two halves (*** Pleasance).

There has been talk of whether a Perrier award for "pure" stand-up should be introduced. I don't see the point. Who decides, and how, whether a comedian's stage persona amounts to "character" work or not? And does the fact that David O'Doherty (**** Gilded Balloon Teviot) uses a small Yamaha keyboard to knock out a clutch of wry Magnetic Fields-style numbers outweigh the more conventional, chatty nature of the rest of his warm and engaging show?

Having said that, I can appreciate that award panellists may find themselves irked by a growing reliance on technical kit. Alex Horne: Making Fish Laugh (*** Assembly Rooms) has a neat thematic idea: a practical investigation into the findings of a 1976 international conference on humour and laughter. However, Horne and his associate's dependence on overhead projections and various other audio-visual fripperies goes beyond a joke in itself and becomes a handicap. Howard Read, in The Big Howard Little Howard Show (** Pleasance), has created a wonderful comic character in Little Howard, an animation with whom Read interacts on stage; however, a good 95% of the comedy meat is on the screens at the back of the stage, reducing Read in performance to something like the status of Basil Brush's straight man, occasionally tapping at his Macintosh iBook and constantly clutching a wireless mouse to cue the projections, not always flawlessly.

Gary Le Strange: Polaroid Suitcase (**** Underbelly) is halfway tech-reliant: Le Strange, alias Waen Shepherd, uses taped backing tracks for half a dozen fiendishly incisive parodies of early 1980s New Romantic songs, with titles like "Is My Toaster Sentient?" These are interspersed with Le Strange's account of his life as a "neo-Regency face warrior". There's enough generic humour here to keep most chuckling, but those of a certain age will take a Stuart Maconie-esque delight in spotting how specific Shepherd's targets are. Such an overgrown boy am I.

Die (***** Pleasance Dome) also uses tapes for much of its duration, and its material sags in places, but it earns that fifth star for the sheer completeness and complexity of its conception and execution. Two- and three-dimensional puppets, black-light work and jaw-dropping costumes create a kind of black adult panto set in a corporatised Hell. Characters include Deathrow Jethro, the undead crooner Frankenstinatra and a schmaltzy-pianist/Terminator hybrid named LiberArnie, who incongruously lisps, "Come with me if you want to live!" Brand X Productions surely haven't a hope in hell of breaking even on their Edinburgh stint, but we should all be happy that they came.

I've saved the best till last. Reginald D. Hunter: White Woman (***** Pleasance Dome) is the most compelling comedy show I have seen in years. Hunter muses on racial preconceptions, on the iconography of the white woman in commercial and popular culture and his relation to it as a burly black man from Georgia now living in Britain. He is by turns profound and hilarious, easygoing and right on the button. This is a rap in the pre-hiphop sense of engaging directly with us and laying the truth on us (in terms of vocal timbre, Hunter sounds curiously like poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron), and I do not have words to convey its magnificence. Perrier prediction is a mug's game, but if there emerge a performer and show more deserving of being cheered from the rooftops than Reg Hunter, I'll eat Gary Le Strange's tights.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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