In the clammy shadows of Cowgate I was leafleted by a chubby beauty wearing all-leather fetish gear. ‘Hi! Want to spend an hour with a prostitute for nothing?’ Yes, please. Her show The Coin-Operated Girl (Liquid Room Annexe, until 30 August), part of the free fringe, deals with the seven years she spent servicing sex-starved men in swish London hotels. One of the commonest fantasies was ‘GFE’, which has nothing to do with threesomes or gimp-masks. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ means sex, kissing, cuddling, chatting, bickering and everything involved in a normal relationship. Her story is warm, hilarious and extremely refreshing because it reveals the sex trade as a good-natured branch of social work rather than as a nightmare of drugs, misery and violence.
The Man Called Monkhouse (Assembly Hall, until 31 August) is a superb semi-success. Simon Cartwright’s impersonation of the suntanned clown borders on the miraculous. He shows us Bob in many guises. Creative Bob works at home harvesting gags almost by accident from his internal monologue. Zoot-suited Bob charms the crowds at TV studios. Tortured Bob mourns his cold and undemonstrative mother. Nightclub Bob does private gigs, whisky in hand (‘I never go on alone’), and uses surprisingly coarse material. ‘Britain’s first commercial sperm bank has gone into voluntary liquidation. There were only five donors. Two came on the bus. Three missed the tube.’ But the play’s structure is awry. The script opens with Bob’s discovery that his jokebooks have been pinched and this leads to lengthy conversations over a speakerphone with a bumbling detective. It’s tough for Cartwright to develop a credible relationship on-stage with an invisible audio tape. And the complex investigation means we lose the more potent emotional material from Bob’s past. He had a depressive writing partner, Dennis Goodwin, who once quipped, ‘I’d commit suicide but I’d live to regret it.’ Goodwin took his own life, aged 45. And we should hear more about Bob’s disabled son, Gary, who was photographed at his wedding by paps who published shots of him looking ugly and outlandish. When Bob deals with these stories the show is heartbreaking but it needs a rewrite or two. The dazzling Simon Cartwright is so good he’s bound to get a second tilt at this terrific role.
John Lennon: In His Own Write (Voodoo Rooms, until 30 August) is a collection of insane but riveting short stories published by Lennon in 1964. The text has been reorganised as a set of wacky sketches performed by a likable trio. The material, being half a century old, will appeal most to audiences of a similar vintage who don’t suffer a moral collapse when they hear words like ‘spastic’ or ‘coloured bus conductor’. Lennon’s lyrical panache is amazing. He creates a new mock-heroic language whose constant puns recall the inventiveness of James Joyce or Spike Milligan. ‘I carn’t not believe this incredible fact of truth about my very body which has not gained fat since mother begat me at childburn.’ There’s a sketch where a Scouser is placed under arrest. ‘What you say will be taken down and used in Everton against you.’ This is a fabulous rediscovery which could, and should, tour the country.
When Blair had Bush and Bunga (Pleasance Courtyard, until 31 August) conforms to two fringe stereotypes. First, it’s an atrocity cabaret along the lines of ‘Gaddafi the Musical’. Second, it’s a popular hit that the reviewers have trashed. I can see why. The opening is clumsy and the threadbare plot takes too long to emerge. It’s 2001 and we’re poolside at Cliff Richard’s mansion in Barbados, where the Blairs are nervously awaiting the arrival of George W and Silvio Berlusconi. It’s like a panto full of grotesque caricatures. A panicking Tony trots around in his tennis whites. Carole Caplin lays out healing crystals on the tiles and sings Buddhist drivel. Cherie arrives in her red lipstick and gives us the famous goalpost smile. Scowling Alastair Campbell swears nastily at Carole’s thick Australian boyfriend. A hairy-backed Berlusconi shows up in leopard-print Speedos and chases an elderly waitress, who squeals with glee at the prospect of being raped by a half-naked foreign pensioner. It’s not exactly Voltaire. And the haphazard jokes are often corny. ‘Who is this Cliff Pilchard guy?’ But that doesn’t matter because the show works. After a sluggish start the laughs increase, the plot coheres and the momentum builds. There’s a great performance from Clive Mantle, who captures George W’s air of babyish naivety underlaid by a scary, screw-loose steeliness. Towards the end the audience were laughing at every joke and they gave the cast a huge ovation. But bad notices have inflicted undeserved damage on this show. It’s not a classic and it may struggle to extend its life beyond the festival, but never mind. Treat yourself. It’s extremely silly, deeply unsophisticated and crackingly funny.