August 24, 2008

Confessions of a Grouchy Surrealist

By Nick Barber

Comedy Rhod Gilbert Mark Watson Michael McIntyre Sarah Millican All at Pleasance Courtyard EDINBURGH

It hasn't been a vintage Fringe for comedy this year. There's certainly been no shortage of enjoyable shows, but there has been a shortage of unknown acts who have booked themselves into venues the size of broom cupboards, and then found themselves making the leap to stardom. The comedians who have provided the most laughs this August are the ones who were already big names, in Fringe terms, way back in July.

The closest thing to word-of-mouth "buzz" has been the whisper that Rhod Gilbert has hit new heights. Gilbert, one of the country's most distinctive and entertaining stand-ups, is a grouchy surrealist who used to specialise in jokes set in his own imaginary world. But the idea of this year's intricately structured show is that he's been trying to cut down on make-believe and concentrate on reality. As he struggles to make sense of torches that are advertised as having the power of "a million candles", and signs on public toilet walls that announce what time they'll next be cleaned, Gilbert concludes that the real world is as absurd as anything he could dream up on his own.

His comments about modern life's annoyances are all dead on target, but his genius is in the way those annoyances send him spiralling into paroxysms of helpless, furious confusion. He's a worthy nominee for this year's if.comedy award. As I write, I don't know if he's won or not - the results were announced last night - but if there were a prize for the best individual stand-up segment, then Gilbert would have it in the bag for a side-splitting 15- minute rant that weaves together the experiences of buying a duvet and stopping at a motorway service station.

Mark Watson is less stressed than Gilbert, but not by much. He's another Welsh comic who splutters about the disappointments of contemporary Britain, using his motormouthed sarcasm to jab at hypocrisy wherever it rears its head - usually on trains and in Travelodges. Watson gabbles through his shaggy-dog stories so eagerly that he always seems to be on the verge of tumbling in a tongue-tied heap. I doubt it'll ever happen, though.

After watching Gilbert and Watson risk cardiac arrest, it's a relief to see Michael McIntyre, one of the least angry comedians alive. McIntyre has the gift of finding the world a funny place, and he conveys this view with such infectious jollity that life seems brighter in his company. He has some hilarious, mostly domestic material, including the two occasions when it's acceptable to wake up a woman who's having a lie-in: a snowfall and the death of a celebrity. But his jokes are less important than the relaxed, sparkly charisma of someone who's often hooting with laughter himself. He generates more audience goodwill than anyone I've seen this year.

Sarah Millican has been nominated for the if.comedy's Best Newcomer prize. Resembling a younger version of Caroline Aherne in her Mrs Merton guise, Millican is bespectacled and Northern, with a sweet, mumsy manner that makes her filthiness all the more gobsmacking. I wasn't bowled over by her waspish routines about her divorce, but she has her moments, and it's nice to see such a full- on Geordie. Two of Millican's favourite words are "bonny" and "champion". Most of her other favourite words aren't printable.

Fringe box office: 0131-226 0000

(c) 2008 Independent on Sunday, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.