Fringe Comedy Reviews: Takedowns and Bad Attitudes

Feature by Stu Black | 11 Aug 2015

Revenge is a dish best served with Bolognese sauce, it seems, in Diane Spencer’s [★★★★☆] extended confessional Power Tool, about a season spent working for walking waxwork Nancy Dell’Olio. This is a cautionary tale for all comedians tempted to take the easy money: half-horrifying, half-fascinating, all hilarious. Spencer goes under the laminated skin of the Italian glamour lawyer who came to Edinburgh in 2014 to stage a disastrously self-indulgent show which Spencer was asked to write and couldn’t escape from, ending up as a thankless stagehand on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

This is a brilliant story, brilliantly told apart from a slow-ish start in which Spencer spends a bit too much bemoaning London property prices. But once the mitigating circumstances are established, her takedown of the oleaginous Botox bucket is as brutal as a mafia hit. We do hope Spencer has her protection sorted, and this therapeutic dragon-slaying doesn’t bring Dell’Olio’s legal chums or cousins from Sicily round to her flat to break the radiators.

Being obnoxious is at the heart of rising comic Sarah Callaghan’s [★★☆☆☆] stage persona: think a real life version of Catherine Tate's Lauren. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between genuine bad attitude and the onstage persona she’s working (Callaghan trained at Second City in Chicago so she does know what she is doing). In the set we saw she had a proper go at the audience: dissing an old man for not having enough ambition, picking on the Scottish and bemoaning the small minds who are trying to hold her back.

The punky shtick is grating at times, which is a shame as there are good jokes and the show, called Elephant, is smartly structured. She imagines her bedroom and invites us to look around: photos on the wardrobe, a broken curtain rail, don’t step on her notes, mate! It’s all a bit like this – she welcomes and repels at the same time.  She pins her spikiness on ambition and assures us it will all get better once she’s on TV; with this remark, whether accidentally or for real, she skewers the twisted world view of generation X Factor.

Brett Goldstein [★★★★] takes on incendiary subjects from Jimmy Savile and Bill Cosby to drug-taking and coprophilia, managing to skip back and forth through the flames of acceptability with so much natural charisma you’re willing to go with him into even the warmest, most uncomfortable taboo territory.

The main spark of this show is an offhand remark made by Goldstein’s mother that sets off an existential dilemma that ultimately leads him to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, in the hope of stumbling over some much needed meaning. His affectionate annihilation of his experience at the desert hippy-fest, with its painful sincerity and weird counter-cultural regulations, is just one treat in a show that matches nuanced curiosity with head-scratching scepticism, hope with despair. It never quite goes the way you think it will – at one point he even mounts a reasonable libertarian defence of laddish comic Dapper Laughs – who you might think of as Goldstein’s polar opposite. There are plenty of zingers and the use of call-backs within call-backs like comedy matryoshka dolls is great fun. This excellent show left us with a pain in the chestal area. 

Also using his easy charm to talk about difficult subjects is self-confessed over-thinker Dane Baptiste [★★★★☆]. His new show Reasonable Doubts veers from dolphin sex to the inevitable day when black men will be hunted down for penis transplants. It’s strong, offbeat stuff, the highlight being a memorably acted face-off between his virginity and his libido (the former sketched in as an enthusiastic Blue Peter presenter, the latter like a sassy R&B singer). Baptiste is a very smooth performer with plenty of wisdom to work through: his simple takedown of celebrity culture hits the bullseye, as does an extended assessment of how killing the world’s top terrorist won't get you on the property ladder. This show still feels like it needs to settle but it’s already shaping up to be one of the warmest.

Dane Baptiste: Reasonable Doubts, Pleasance Courtyard, until 30 Aug (various dates), 7.15pm, £7-13

Sarah Callaghan: Elephant, Pleasance Courtyard, until 30 Aug (various dates), £10-12

Brett Goldstein: Burning Man, Pleasance Courtyard, until 31 Aug, £8-11

Diane Spencer: Power Tool, Gilded Balloon, until 31 Aug (various dates), 6.45pm, £8-9.50