The locals probably can’t bear the Edinburgh festival. Their solid, handsome streets are suddenly packed with needy thesps waving and flapping at them from every kerbside. ‘New interactive comedy quiz, starts in five minutes.’ ‘Award-winning monologue about growing up Chinese in Droitwich.’ ‘Stalin the Opera performed by tone-deaf choir.’ There’s a waggish actor who stands on George IV Bridge challenging passers-by not to take a leaflet. ‘When I hand out my next flyer I’m going to jump off the parapet.’ He’s there every day.
One of the first shows I sampled was Titania McGrath Mxnifesto (Pleasance Courtyard, until 25 August). Titania McGrath, the woke guru, demolishes the alt-left orthodoxy in 45 minutes of venomous satire. ‘I’m a simple Kensington girl,’ she announces dictatorially, ‘with a moderate trust fund and a thirst for justice.’ She plans to set up a new progressive party, Shame UK, based on the precept that ‘whiteness is rape’. Titania is an intriguingly detailed character study. She’s bigoted and arrogant but also snobbish, callow and sadistic. ‘I need a new labradoodle, I had to shoot the last one because it stank.’ She likens herself to a ‘modern-day Rosa Parks, except that I wouldn’t be seen dead on public transport, obvs’. A readiness for violence flashes through her rhetoric. ‘I’m going to blow your skulls out with my wisdom.’ She’s not remotely interested in morality or politics, only in her belief that she’s right about everything.
Though expensively educated, she’s shockingly ill informed. ‘Jews are great,’ she says, explaining her opposition to anti-Semitism. ‘They’re really smart. And cunning. I even read that Anne Frank novel. But it’s got a shit ending. It just sort of stops.’ Some of her lines are straightforward stand-up. ‘If we could eliminate heterosexuality, future generations would thank us.’ Others sound like real exchanges overheard in Sloane Square. ‘Prince Archie’s such a disappointment — we were promised a mixed-race one but I go darker than that after a week in Val d’Isère.’
Alice Marshall (Titania) is a fabulous beauty with an amazing knack for physical clowning. Her rap parodies and ‘intersectional dances’ would make great standalone sketches on TV. She rants at her mum for giving birth to her. ‘You spat me out of your yawning muff/ You had no right to murder me with life/ You owe me an iPhone 10.’
Erich McElroy, the ‘Radical Centrist’ (Laughing Horse @ Bar 50, until 25 August), is an American stand-up with British citizenship whose wife, a childminder, is required by EYR (Early Years Register) to teach ‘British values’ to nippers under five. The ‘values’ these tots must absorb include ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance of others’. That’s the funniest moment in a set composed of urbane bourgeois observations. Comedy needs more thorns and fewer petals. Konstantin Kisin (Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 26 August), a British Jew of Russian extraction, delivers a slick show full of great one-liners. ‘I love this country. I say so publicly. That’s how you know I’m not really British.’ He doubts whether Putin was behind Brexit but he sees the Kremlin’s growing influence over our parliament. ‘A prime minister with a Russian name and an opposition leader with Russian policies.’ His most chilling revelation is that in Russia last year there were 400 arrests for violations of social media rules. In this country, he claims, the figure is 3,200. He hopes that we won’t end up like Winston Smith at the close of Nineteen Eighty-Four parroting the mantra that ‘two plus two equals five’. That could only happen, he says, ‘if Diane Abbott becomes education secretary’.
I watched Tom Little (Opium, 71 Cowgate, until 24 August), a nervous youngster from Cumberland, who delivered a raw and chaotic 50-minute set. He lost his way, forgot large chunks of his script and had to backtrack several times. But he’s the real deal. An instinctive comedian with oodles of charm and a quirky, frenetic intensity. He deconstructs the stand-up’s role in society and discusses the classic response when a comedian reveals to a stranger what he does for a living. Either the comic will be asked to ‘tell a joke’. Or the stranger will offer the comedian a gag to include in his set. ‘Neither of those things ever happen to me. When I tell people I’m a comedian, they just look worried.’ Some in the crowd, mainly men, seemed a little bored by his show but the women were rocking with mirth. There are hints of Lee Evans and Simon Pegg about him, and even a dash of Michael Crawford’s exquisite creation, Frank Spencer. If he cuts his energy levels by 10 per cent he could end up in movies.
Scots comedian Mark Nelson reveals his sympathies in his show’s title, Brexit Wounds (Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 25 August). His certitude is unshakeable. ‘Did you vote Remain or were you wrong?’ There were plenty of Scots in the crowd who cheered noisily for Brexit. And though Nelson believes in free movement and the loosening of national borders, his jokes are explicitly tribalist. ‘Dunfermline is a great city of culture. And by that I mean most of the woman have yeast infections.’ He’s better when mocking the Scots for their laissez-faire political culture. ‘The nearest we came to a riot was when Irn-Bru reduced the sugar-levels.’ He got a shock when he tried to scold Scottish Brexiteers for taking too large a gamble with Britain’s economy. ‘Nae gamble!’ shouted a voice at the back. His show was badly affected by a comic in the adjoining room hollering non-stop into the microphone. Nelson handled it brilliantly but it’s tough for a stand-up to deal with a heckler who is a) outside the venue and b) amplified.
Myra (Imagination Workshop, until 24 August) is a harrowing monologue about the Moors murderers. In this show Myra lays most of the blame on her boyfriend Ian Brady, and she claims to have been his first victim. She was bewitched by his charisma and intelligence even though he regularly threatened to kill her. ‘You’re mine now,’ he announced after their first sexual encounter. He enjoyed pointing loaded weapons at her and he liked to pinch her windpipe while raping her. Once, during a bout of non-consensual anal sex, he tore a chunk out of her face with his teeth. Later he told her to explain the gash as a wound sustained by a flying bottle during a bar brawl. It’s a miracle she survived his assaults and yet she was instrumental in luring their victims to their deaths. This is a hard show to enjoy. The writer/performer Lauren Varnfield, has an inscrutable, doll-like beauty. Her face is full of unsettling influences, scorn, impatience, cruelty and deceit. Film directors would love that spectrum of emotions.
Nazis Need Jews (Banshee Labyrinth, until 25 August) is a political show by David Lee Morgan, a genial 71-year-old American who wants to tear down all borders and share the world’s assets equally. He contests that the Jewish conspiracy myth — ‘big-nosed bankers’ — is a fantasy devised by those in power to ‘cover up the truth’. After his anti-capitalist act he smiled: ‘Here’s the capitalist bit. Buy my book.’ It’s ironic that the enemies of capitalism find themselves using capitalism’s facilities — like cut-price self-publishing services — in order to attack capitalism. So they end up strengthening the vice they aim to destroy. Communism has no answer to that. Capitalism doesn’t need one.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe continues at various venues until 26 August.