Edinburgh Fringe 2022: reviews of the best comedy shows to see at the Festival

·22 min read
From left: Lily Phillips, Siblings, Nic Sampson
From left: Lily Phillips, Siblings, Nic Sampson

Andrew O’Neill: We Are Not in the Least Afraid of Ruins; We Carry a New World in Our Hearts ★★★★☆

Where: Liquid Room Annexe

When: 5.30pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 16)

In a nutshell... I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of “an anarchist show about the environment,” but what an unexpected treat this is. Passionate but never preachy or short of a punchline, Andrew O’Neill uses the show’s theme largely a hook for hanging together a string of winningly silly throwaway gags. (I enjoyed a riff about Colin Derr, inventor of the colander). As for proposed solutions to the climate crisis, I wasn’t convinced by a call to cover the country in stone circles and solar-panels, but if you don’t agree with one idea there’ll be another one along in a minute. (Such as this top tip: stop making cutlery. There’s enough already. Your grandparents had forks and spoons – surely, they’re still out there somewhere.) There is room in society, O’Neill reminds us, for “a plurality of voices”, and proves it by giving us the voice of a Geordie conspiracy theorist who thinks the moon is a hoax. To cap it all off, the show ends with the best heavy-metal song about magpies you’ll hear all year. Rock on. TFS

Alasdair Beckett-King: Nevermore ★★★★☆

Where: Pleasance Dome (JackDome), plus extra shows at Pleasance Courtyard at 10.40pm on Aug 19, 20 & 26

When: 7pm

Until: Aug 29

In a nutshell... There’s a touch of Bill Bailey to Alasdair Beckett-King, a stand-up from County Durham with a mane of red hair which – he tells us – drives old ladies wild. (Is it natural? “No, I was cursed by a travelling pedlar.”) Like Bailey, his genteel, whimsical vibe might best described as “Edwardian hippie”. It’s easy to imagine him in another life selling amethyst on Glastonbury Tor. In an hour ostensibly about why he doesn’t like to be beside the seaside, he teaches us about obscure varieties of seashell, turns Nirvana’s grunge into a gag about Constable’s The Hay Wain, and tuts at the crowd for finding the word “groynes” funny. Outside of one slightly hacky routine about TV crime shows, you’re never sure where the next laugh is coming from, but it’s always a delight when it arrives. TFS

Jordan Gray: Is it a Bird? ★★★★★

Where: Assembly George Square (The Box)

When: 10.25pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 17)

In a nutshell... With the beehive of Amy Winehouse, the musical comedy chops of Tim Minchin , and the irrepressible Essex cheek of a young Russell Brand, Jordan Gray has one of the breakthrough hits of the Fringe with Is It A Bird? That title neatly ties together the show’s two themes: superheroes, and being a transgender woman. Gray brings megawatt charisma – and knowingly outsized ego – to a show that ends with a costume change I don’t think I’ll ever forget. She touches on facing prejudice for who she is, but never for a second asks for our sympathy. “If I’m going to be a joke, then I might as well be in on it,” she sings, a line that captures the spirit of the hour. Come for the songs, stay for the outrageous crowd-work. (Flirting with a couple in the front row: “Between my top half and my bottom half I have something for both of you – I’m like a sexual Swiss army knife.”) Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s the sound of a star taking flight. TFS

Lara Ricote: GIRL/LATNX/DEF ★★★★☆

Where: Monkey Barrel Comedy (The Hive)

When: 3.20pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 17)

In a nutshell... Lara Ricote has bona fide funny bones. The Mexico-born Funny Women Award-winner’s Fringe debut might have some rough edges – I could have done without the rap – but she has a deliciously goofy, gawky stage-presence, perfect timing, and surprising lines of thought on sex, race and disability. (If she was never told she was a “person of colour” until she moved to the Netherlands, she wonders, does that mean she really is one?) Her funniest material involves the none-too-funny-on-paper topic of her degenerative hearing-loss; a routine about why she removes hearing aids during sex is a hoot. Ricote is a talent to watch. TFS

Mat Ewins: Danger Money ★★★☆☆

Where: Just the Tonic at the Caves (Big Room)

When: 10.30pm

Until: Aug 28

In a nutshell... For years, Mat Ewins has put on jaw-droppingly high-tech shows for free in tiny pubs. This year finds him flanked by two nigh-stadium-size screens, on a bigger stage (albeit still round the back of a Free Fringe pub), for an interactive extravaganza undercut by his shouty, aggressively self-deprecating stage persona. It’s a mix that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s unique.

The high points are his bonkers homemade video games. In one, a punter tries to win £1 by pedalling an exercise bike to control a biplane-flying digital frog. (Why? No idea.) For Ewins’s take on beer pong, volunteers play the arcade game Pong by gulping lager from pints hooked up to digital sensors. If Danger Money were back-to-back games, it would be irresistible. But the bulk of the hour is an onslaught of often crude, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them video skits on the loose theme of “dangerous” feats, from surviving a plane crash to mastering time-travel. Even when his videos don’t make me laugh (most here didn’t), I’m awed at the craft that goes into them. Ewins is the sort of chap who would spend weeks reprogramming FIFA for a three-second sight gag, and there’s something noble in that. TFS

Christian Brighty: Playboy ★★★★☆

Where: Pleasance Courtyard (Below)

When: 9.40pm

Until... Aug 28 (not 17)

In a nutshell... Lock up your daughters (and uncles, while you’re at it), Lord Christian Brighty is in town. With an array of wobbly props, a smattering of clever audience interaction, and a script more tightly knotted than his neckerchief, this mutton-chopped fop bonks his way across Britain, pausing only to dynamite an orphanage or take a dip, Darcy-like, in a lake.

Riding a wave of Bridgerton-mania, character comic Brighty built a huge following on TikTok with his bite-sized Regency spoofs. An amusing 10-second video doesn’t always translate to a good hour in the theatre, but in this case it indisputably has, even if Brighty’s rake is not a wholly unique creation: Ciaran Dowd’s Don Rodolfo remains the Fringe’s king of historical lotharios.

Not every gag lands (there’s at least one scatological malapropism too many), but it’s buoyed along by Brighty’s bright performance and his chemistry with unseen co-star Amy Greaves, who runs all the props and cues from the lighting booth, while also getting some of the best lines – in voiceover – as his hoop-skirted love interest. Bravo. TFS

Bobby Mair: Cockroach ★★★☆☆

Where: Monkey Barrel (Carnivore)

When: 11.05pm

Until: Aug 25 (not 15)

In a nutshell... Doing a free gig late at night in a bar that looks more like a nuclear bunker, where something unidentifiable keeps dripping from the ceiling, Bobby Mair is in his element. The room could be a metaphor for the Canadian’s empty-glass outlook and winningly scuzzy vibe.

With his downbeat, breathy delivery and combative crowd-work, Mari is less club comic than unclubbable comic. The hour has longeurs, and is a bit tonally uneven. There’s an uncharacteristic smidge of vulnerability when Mair opens up about his Borderline Personality Disorder; he’s on more confident ground when arguing that the elderly should be used to clear minefields.

Despite his own best efforts, Mair remains decent company. He serves up one of my favourite one-liners of the Fringe, too: “My wife wanted to have kids, I wanted to adopt, because I was adopted. As a compromise, we had kids and put them up for adoption.” TFS

Eryn Tett Finds her Audience ★★★☆☆

Eryn Tett
Eryn Tett

Where: Just the Tonic at the Tron

When: 5pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 15)

In a nutshell... Most young stand-ups are ploughing the same furrow of confessional, anecdotal comedy, but not Eryn Tett. A Funny Women Award finalist, she writes strikingly odd one-liners with an enviable hit-rate, gags of a kind that often take a second or 10 to land. They combine the affable stoner logic of Mitch Hedburg (“They’re only temporary tattoos if you wash”) with the Martian-baffled-by-Earth vibe of Emo Phillips (“Why do we want our babies so oily?”).

But the one-liners aren’t all there is to the hour. It’s framed as a “data-gathering” exercise, an interesting conceit that, sadly, doesn’t come off: the crowd work involved in this recurring bit veers too close to genuine admin, hobbling the show’s momentum. Still, what she lacks in confidence and polish she makes up for in charm; Tett is a memorable, distinctive new voice. TFS

Luke Rollason: Bowerbird ★★★★☆

Where: Monkey Barrel Comedy (The Hive)

When: 12.30pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 17)

In a nutshell... Some jokes are timeless: the climax of wild-eyed visual comic Luke Rollason’s utterly delightful Bowerbird involves him slipping on an honest-to-goodness banana peel. But what a journey he takes to get there!

This hour of gloriously daft sight gags begins with Rollason barefoot onstage wearing a lampshade, and includes a singing sofa, kitchen appliances turned into shonky puppets – his props-based clowning owes a heavy debt to Spencer Jones – and even a genuinely original spoof of that over-spoofed chestnut, the pottery scene in Ghost. (Rollason plays half a dozen ghosts, plus the bewildered pot.)

A bowerbird attracts its mate by building a nest of nicknacks. There’s a hint that all these props are Rollason’s own bowerbird-like appeal for love and connection – tied to his (post-lockdown?) anxiousness about leaving his home, or inviting people into it – but thankfully it’s no more than a hint. This show was written, he says, in “the worst week of his life”, but he explains no further, and pokes fun at his own efforts to earn our sympathy; goofy ingenuity wins out over grief. TFS

John-Luke Roberts: A World Just Like Our Own, But… ★★★★☆

John-Luke Roberts
John-Luke Roberts

Where: Monkey Barrel Comedy (Monkey Barrel 4)

When: 3.35pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 16-17)

In a nutshell... There’s a world where Morrissey followed Meat is Murder with the less successful Salt and Vinegar Crisps Are Embezzlement; in another world, Evil Knievel is called Morally-Ambivalent Knorrelly-Ambivalent.

John-Luke Roberts knows about all these worlds, and many more, because he’s opened a portal to parallel dimensions in his tumble-dryer – and brought along the machine (and the one-liners) to prove it. I’ll forgive him for frequently checking his notes – with hundreds of gags all starting with exactly the same set-up, this show must be a nightmare to remember.

In recent years, Roberts has produced some of the cleverest and most inventive shows on the Fringe. (His cabaret night Terrible Wonderful Adaptations, 11pm on Aug 12-13 and 19-20, is a must-see.) Blending pure idiocy, poignant musings on failed relationships and quips about quantum physics, his latest stand-up hour is another high-concept treat. TFS

Alice Fraser: Chronos ★★★★☆

Where: Gilded Balloon Teviot (Sportsmans)

When: 9.15pm

Until: Aug 29 (not 15)

In a nutshell... Alice Fraser has built a large-ish international fanbase through her podcasts (The Bugle, The Gargle, The Last Post) but a half-empty room at the Fringe is a reminder that she isn’t as well known as she should be in the UK. It’s a shame, as she’s terrific. Aside from a slightly perfunctory bit of lockdown chat near the start, her latest hour is Fraser on top form.

Like her compatriot Sarah Kendall, the Australian ex-lawyer is more of a natural storyteller than a natural joker, though her best writing has the delicious, free-flowing poetry of Dylan Moran. Gyms, she says, are “places where people go to lease their sweat”. On trendy self-help mantras: “People who say ‘you are enough’ are always too much.”

Her latest hour is about trying to write this very show on a London-to-Edinburgh train journeys. She offers sharp portraits of her fellow passengers, who include a social-media influencer, and “four men in the same haircut - not sharing, they all had one,” the sort of sporty lads "usually seen going by at speed, narrating your tits”.

The train, she later points out (unnecessarily) is a metaphor for life rushing past. Eager to wring every second from the day, she listens to audiobooks at 1.5x normal speed, and speaks even faster. (Long before this show starts, she’s gabbling amiably to the first punters as soon as they arrive in their seats.) But is that really the way to live? Cue a swerve into the broad-strokes philosophising Fraser has a weakness for.

Fraser insists that each of her shows should have a moral, an almost Victorian idea that might annoy some comedy fans, though I’ve always found it endearing. Wrestling to find that lesson here, she deviates from a rule she set herself on starting out as a stand-up: never to talk onstage about her gender, sexuality or romantic relationships. It’s a rule worth breaking for the heartwarming disclosure that comes in Chronos’s last five minutes. For all her anxious clock-watching, an hour with Fraser is an hour well spent. TFS

Josie Long: Re-Enchantment ★★★☆☆

Where: Monkey Barrel Comedy (Monkey Barrel 3), plus one extra show at The Stand’s New Town Theatre 9pm on Aug 25

When: 2.50pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 17, 24)

In a nutshell... Josie Long is Fringe royalty; I’ve not seen another comic here greeted with such deafening applause. Her last touring show Tender – about having a baby – was a hilarious career-best, but her new hour finds her pleasantly coasting along with her usual brand of upbeat agitprop.

Longtime fans will be glad to hear she’s moved to Glasgow (a city she’s been misty-eyed about for years; cf. her 2016 Radio 4 series Romance and Adventure) and had a second child. As ever, the sparks in her stand-up come from the conflict Long’s happy-go-lucky “good vibes only” demeanour and her roiling anger at the erosion of our civil rights.

This year, she’s worried about our right to free speech, endangered by anti-protest legislation, and our even-more-fundmental right “not to be murdered by the state”. (One 2021 act, she notes, technically gives a free pass to undercover police to torture or kill citizens without consequence.) It’s stirring stuff, and rightly alarming to any liberal or libertarian, but never really uproariously funny – which, after Tender, is a letdown. TFS

Crybabies: Bagbeard ★★★★★

Crybabies: Bagbeard
Crybabies: Bagbeard

Where: Pleasance Dome (10Dome)

When: 5.50pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 15)

In a nutshell... The star rating above is over-generous, I know that. Alternately childish and studenty, Crybabies: Bagbeard is a sophomore show (in both senses) that pushes the boundaries of alternative comedy not one square inch. It’s an old-fashioned farce where the protagonist spends most of an hour running around without his trousers. It’s one-dimensionally silly, and undeservedly sentimental, but dear Lord, did it make me howl with laughter.

Crybabies’ Edinburgh Comedy Award-nominated 2019 debut – a free show in the basement of a Brazilian restaurant – was a sublime spoof of Second World War thrillers. This sci-fi-themed follow-up, though not quite so off-the-wall, is another cast-iron delight. The sketch troupe are in a proper theatre now but still duck behind the same ratty curtain for every costume change, of which there are many. Each of the young trio plays dozens of roles in a baroque unfolding narrative that takes swipes at Stranger Things, Midsommar, The Thing, The X Files, ET, Superman and Twin Peaks.

Here, for what it’s worth, is the plot. Michael Clarke plays a frustrated science teacher called Chris Mystery (mispronounced by everyone else as “Christmas Tree”), living on a fictional Channel island. He bumps into an extraterrestrial, James Gault, whose “alien” costume consists of a loincloth plus a blue plastic off-licence carrier bag over his chin. (As Crybabies outfits go, this is high-budget.) The alien is pursued by a Men In Black-style spook (Ed Jones), who falls in love with it at a masked ball, until this marriage of two minds admits impediment in the form of an evil scientist (Gault again, this time as a kind of pound-shop Davros).

Crybabies bring the spirit of the Goon Show into the 21st century; Radio 4 should give them a series at once. Gault is their Spike Milligan – the rangy, shambling, faintly otherworldly one. Jones is the Peter Sellers – the gifted mimic with rubbery film-star looks. (His pirate slang professor is a highlight.) And Clarke is the Harry Seacombe – the music-hall singing, fourth-wall-breaking everyman hero who can’t stop corpsing at his own jokes.

At one point, Clarke finds himself alone in a forest at night: “What time is it?” he asks himself. A hand, from offstage, holds out a cardboard sign: MIDNIGHT. “Midnight!?” he cries. “That’s the latest time there is!” If that tickles you, Bagbeard will, too. If it doesn’t, I can’t help you. TFS

Laura Davis: If This Is It ★★★☆☆

Where: Monkey Barrel Comedy (Carnivore)

When: 4pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 16)

In a nutshell... If you think you had a dull lockdown, spare a thought for Laura Davis. After the charismatic Australian comic and her husband ended up stuck in his mother’s one-bedroom flat, Davis ran off to live in the woods, where she buried tinned food and performed stand-up each night to wandering critters. When a joke doesn’t land with Edinburgh’s human crowd, she quips: “Well, the bugs always liked it.”

Astonishingly, the whole living-in-the-woods thing is given short shrift in her new show, which tries to solve all the world’s ills at once, from the despoliation of our oceans to social media abuse, via sexual harassment in her industry. (Today, male comics “are so scared, some of them can’t even masturbate at a colleague any more”.)

There are plenty of strong lines, but the problem with If This Is It is partly that those topics are already well-trodden ground, and partly how Davis frames her motivation for addressing them. She used to do inconsequential, whimsical comedy about animals, she says, but “what people expect from comedy now is different… it has to be a political, uplifting, cathartic show”. This is tongue-in-cheek, but also earnest, as that’s exactly what she delivers. Putting it in those terms makes the soapboxing seem more a calculated choice than a real cri de coeur.

Davis’s previous show, the superb Ghost Machine – in which she wore a sheet-over-the-head ghost costume throughout – keep whimsy and dark subject-matter in perfect balance. With If This Is It, the balance has tipped too far to one side. TFS

Nic Sampson: Marathon 1904 ★★★★☆

Nic Sampson
Nic Sampson

Where: Pleasance Courtyard (Cellar)

When: 4.40pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 15)

In a nutshell... This might be the craziest story in the history of sport. In 1904 St Louis, Missouri, hosted the Olympic games. Almost nobody turned up. It was a fiasco, but the worst part was the marathon. In a heatwave, doomed sportsmen jogged along dusty, rock-strewn roads, often running straight into oncoming traffic – there was at least one recorded car crash – and, for good measure, being chased by packs of wild dogs. As they were forbidden from drinking water, the only mid-race refreshments on offer were strychnine and raw eggs.

In his Fringe debut, likeable New Zealand comic Nic Sampson plays a dozen characters to recount this rollicking, unexpectedly heartwarming tale (his Alice Roosevelt is a glowing highlight). He takes a while to find his stride, and not all the early jokes land, but by the messy finale – in which he's repeatedly sponged down by a volunteer – he's carrying the whole crowd along on this wackiest of races. TFS

Britney: Friends and Nothing More ★★★★☆

Where: Pleasance Courtyard (Below)

When: 5.45pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 16)

In a nutshell: Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson have the kind of close-knit, effortless chemistry that comes from having been friends since school – where they gave their first performance as a comic double-act, and flopped terribly. Why that gig went wrong is a thread gently tying together an hour that’s often very funny indeed.

Like sketch contemporaries The Pin, their endearingly low-octane style involves spending as much time discussing their skits as performing them. Those out-of-character bits are a delight – one five-minute introduction to a five-second bit is a highlight. By contrast, longer, acted-out routines about Stephen King and Facebook slightly outstay their welcome. The duo’s easygoing, unhurried style may prove ultimately better suited to the screen than the stage. The BBC should follow up their 2021 TV pilot with a full series sharpish, but until that happens they’re well worth catching here. TFS

Hal Cruttenden is a the Pleasance Courtyard until Aug 28 - Matt Crockett
Hal Cruttenden is a the Pleasance Courtyard until Aug 28 - Matt Crockett

Hal Cruttenden: It’s Best You Hear It From Me ★★★★☆

Where: Pleasance Courtyard (Pleasance Two)

When: 8.10pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 16)

In a nutshell: Will marital break-up prove Hal Cruttenden’s break-through moment? He has long toiled on the circuit, but those years haven’t been in vain: he combines quicksilver audience repartee with tautly worded observational material, shifting between camp jollity, self-deprecating self-obsession and claws-out viciousness, happily embracing a newfound darkness to ponder ageing, disappointment, regret and the evil demeanour of cats. He's in the Remain camp, but there’s no hint of Remoaner-dom. In his strongest show to date, the recent break-up of his marriage is the prevailing theme – it’s as if it’s all being processed in real-time, with a lot of theatrical expostulations but refreshingly little recrimination. “It took me three months after we’d separated to diet and get the ring off,” he joshes. They’re still living together, just. “I get back from gigs and call “I’m home!”. She goes ‘I don’t care!’” Comedy’s alchemical ability to transmute pain into laughter is admirably to the fore. DC

Lily Phillips: Smut ★★★☆☆

Where: Pleasance Courtyard (Bunker One)

When: 7.35pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 16)

In a nutshell: Despite its title, Lily Phillips’s Fringe debut isn’t all that smutty. It finds the Londoner at a comic crossroads between two styles: Lou Sanders-ish, upbeat body comedy about flaps and fluids, and something rather darker. Characteristically, she opens the hour by comparing her ice-white bob to Jimmy Savile’s.

It's an unspoken rule that Fringe comedy shows must have a serious bit. Here, though, an earnest message about not objectifying women's bodies or judging them by their appearance jars oddly against some of Phillips’s sharper bad-taste lines. Britney Spears, she says, looks like “the last one awake in a crack den”.

It’s not the most original or distinctive stuff, but Phillips is a confident performer. She has good stories to tell, even if she's still figuring out how to turn them into A-grade material. Her time as an exotic-ish dancer (“I wasn’t a stripper, but I wasn’t a ballerina”) surely has enough in it for a full show, but here it’s dispensed with quickly, after a marvellously dry one-liner about her boss, a man arrested for human trafficking: “He was actually a really nice guy – he was always offering to look after our passports.” TFS

Siblings: Siblage ★★★★☆

Siblings: Maddy and Marina Bye
Siblings: Maddy and Marina Bye

Where: Pleasance Courtyard (Attic)

When: 8.30pm

Until: Aug 29 (not 15)

In a nutshell... It’s the end-of-term assembly at to Siblage High School for Talented Siblings, and we have to sit through the whole thing: from a sex ed talk, to a “what we did for work experience” presentation, to the junior years’ improvised reimagining of Wind in the Willows. This carnival of horrors is summoned up by French and Saunders-esque sketch duo Maddy and Marina Bye - real-life siblings, the daughters of Ruby Wax.

In places, the writing slips into the puerile (one teacher is called “Mrs Piss”), but what makes this show a hoot is the sheer energy of the performances, filling each skit with unexpected flourishes. Half the characters end up playing other characters, giving the hour a mad Russian-doll quality. The assembly is hijacked by a bespectacled Northern drama teacher who puts on an American football coach persona to star in his self-penned serious drama; his co-star skips on- and offstage like Fotherington-Tomas, before turning into a macho sports bro. Meanwhile, those sex ed teachers, who have accents “from every country in the world”, treat us to a vowel-mangling remake of Sex and the City. The Byes keep corpsing, but I’ll let them off without detention; nobody could make it through this with a straight face. TFS

Frankie Boyle: Lap of Shame ★★★★☆

Where: Assembly Rooms (Music Hall)

When: 6.15pm

Until: Aug 28 (not 15, 16 or 22)

In a nutshell... Frankie Boyle’s in town, with a freshly populated leper colony of gags. “They’re just jokes,” he says repeatedly, stressing that they’re fictions. There are no real-world consequences to his tactically repellent shtick, unless you feel it’s so noxiously offensive it plunges mankind lower into the cesspit. Having laughed an indecent amount during Lap of Shame, I feel compelled to restate the case for his defence, which is that Boyle valuably confronts us with our moral putrefaction, his darkness descriptive of our age’s turpitude. As his debut novel, the bestselling crime thriller Meantime confirms, he combines immaculate turns of phrase with the grubbiest trains of thought. His parents were Irish, he grew up in Glasgow; at his finest, you get a glimpse of Wilde, lying in the gutter at pub closing time. DC