Ahir Shah's Ends is something else. Shah has been an assured bet for years now, especially among those who seek out comedy that is smart and challenging. So when his opening routines are on the supremely big bollocks naughty translation of his name from Arabic and then how much he is head over heels in love... you do wonder what has happened to our handsome political giant toppler? I mean, the bits still contain all of Shah's pitch perfect, velvet voiced strong arming but isn't this all a tad... optimistic?
Even if his impending nuptials mean Shah is floating on Cloud 9, he can pull his head out from the nimbostratus long enough to realise the UK still looks like it is going to hell in a handcart. And this opens up his most laugh heavy sequence: performing a tandem autopsy on the comparative successes of Rishi Sunak compared to Shah himself. Does having so many Asian figures in the top jobs of the British establishment mean racism is over? Scoff! Or is it more a testament to the hardships and pioneering values of immigrant communities that they are starting to reap from what their grandparents endured so much to sow?
This unlocks the vault that Shah wants to concentrate on: his absolute grafter of a Nanaji. In the Sixties his mother's father took on huge sacrifice, leaving his young family for 5 years to settle in a country openly hostile to his presence. The journey to Britain was taken with the sole aim of building up enough of a fund to bring the entire family over on a promise of a better life. Shah details the loneliness, the sparseness and the insidious constant racism his beloved grandfather endured. He excitedly lets the privileged in the room know about 'the 888'. Three Gujarati married men, including his grandfather, who saved by sharing the same single room, mapping out their double shifts each day so that the bed was in constant eight hour rotations and sharing a food subsistence that is spartan to the point of poverty. Five years of hardship to accumulate enough wages to give their young disunited families a chance to all join them in Britian and then start a life of better opportunities... A sustained oral celebration of positive masculinity that almost brought a tear to even this granite and barbed wire toughy's eye. And because this is the Ahir Shah we are talking about, he always finds the ironies and the ridiculousness in this amazing story. The one time he rightly refuses to, he still garners a huge laugh merely by punctuating how he refuses to cheapen the emotional wallop with a forced gag.
If there is some deeper thread in this pinnacle piece of stand-up: it might be that good actions outweigh directionless anger. Social media bombards us with corruption, hate crimes and injustices with such regularity that we feel both permanently anxious and utterly impotent when sluiced in the never-ending ills of the world. Yet Shah brings up three shining examples of another way. Proactive gestures that ignore the macro and focus on the small but impactful good that one can achieve if you dial back the noise and get down to the possible. His fiancée's vocation to be a good civil servant, knowing that by being excellent at her job the wider benefits to society are immeasurable. His West London secondary school teacher who ignored the police vans outside the gates and introduced a Latin class in one of those shitty Portacabin classrooms, just so the kids like Shah who might go to a top university shared at least one of the advantages of their private school peers. His beloved Nanaji who put himself through a prolonged experience alien to us as 21st century Westerners and just so his future generations could have the best start. Progress, endurance, heart. Ahir Shah: Ends? The ends justify the means. I cannot think of another comedian operating at this level of intelligence, craft and confidence. His Nanaji would be very proud.
How's about starting your day with a debut built on muscular laughs? Kent born stand-up Fiona Ridgewell has been a bright spark on the London scene for a fair few years and she has clearly waited to showcase herself on the Fringe with an hour of all wheat, no chaff. This is a lean assemblage of all her best routines. Like a lightning game of squash, if she sends a set-up to the wall it comes bouncing back with a direct punchline at double speed. Her joke writing is chiselled with the same unforgiving word count of the finest one liner merchants. But rather than deadpan puns, every word of her script also stays on point with her life story.
A Disney brunch lover who is as at home in the boxing ring as she is down the mystical crystal shop, Ridgewell is a straightforward comic whose writing and editing keeps it simple and stays firmly in the mainstream. There's nothing here that wouldn't rock in a club 20, yet lucky old us, we get three times that amount. Our attention never flags.
Ridgewell's cheeky but welcoming attitude means she might struggle to get her middle-aged daytime crowd sold on anything that is on the darker side. It just wouldn't suit how she has presented herself. So she smartly employs her dear old bitter mum as a secondary character to add any assassinating nasty line that doesn't fully fit her own voice and saves the rude stuff for the final stretch. Her 'roast chicken' routine refers to an act of fellatio that feels more UFC than KFC, certainly not true love's kiss. And it is a new one even on me. She broaches this showstopper with a saucy down to earth complicity akin to a Home Counties Sarah Millican. And because it is told in exactly the same clipped, successful back-and-forth as all her sweeter stuff, the sober crowd laps it up. Even with that gross-out gravy topper. Oof!
Is there any loftier ambition than to entertain? If the best debut awards went to the show that works its audience like a punchbag relentlessly but makes them feel like they have a brand new prosecco drinking buddy then Ridgewell should be heading back to Kent clutching gold. Maybe the Edinburgh Comedy Awards could do themselves a favour and gift a win to someone with TV ready star power and the chops that'd make a Comedy Store veteran come out from the green room to watch. Ridgewell feels like the real deal.
And if an afternoon of unfussy fun is what you desire, why not keep things Free Fringe and cross over a mere 10 metres to the Cinema Room in The Banshee Labyrinth soon afterwards. Danny Ward's A Ward Winning! is a lucky dip of his latest gags. There are lo-fi PowerPoint slides of chip shops with killer brand names, a bag full of daft purchases, a bulletproof routine on the miseries of a camping holiday and some rather sweet musings on mortality following the death of fellow comedian Gareth Richards. Ward is a very talented and sincere guy; who he is on stage is who he is off stage. Such authenticity cannot be bottled or bought. He leans into mischief and crowd work. He is not scared of his room, young or old, reminding me of primetime era Michael Barrymore in the warmth and teasing loucheness he brings to everyone he interacts with. Lovely stuff.
An exciting show that was well up my niche was Chris Thorburn's Cineman. As long as you have even a passing interest in what is on at the multiplexes each week then you'll find much daft joy here. A PowerPoint clicker with fired up dance numbers and a surprising surfeit of singing solos (Glaswegian Thorburn has a lovely set of pipes on him) you certainly couldn't accuse the pacy 45 minutes of being a butt numb-er. Thorburn races through routines like his life depended on it, much like rapidly scrolling through a spoof Mark Kermode's TikTok content.
Some of Thorburn's fake movie pitches with photoshopped posters feel genuinely like the clichés any major streaming service algorithm would option in an AI heartbeat. His alternative ending to Forrest Gump had me bent over with laughter. There's a more traditional stand-up routine about the true meaning of Toy Story that holds water and might ruin the film for me next time I pop it on for a comfort watch. And there's an American Pie legacy sequel gag that feels way too on the money. If you are a movie buff there's a certain degree of pub quiz / beat the punchline to some of his set-ups. All this will make the video nerds feel like kings.
From one-liners to enthused act outs, there's not a comedy style Thorburn isn't adept at. And as he likes his IP fresh there is very little recycled snark... even towards the mega franchises. Just gentle ribbing from someone you can tell goes to see the big releases on opening weekend with as much hope in his heart as the rest of us for a great night out. And luckily, Cineman is a top afternoon in - the showstopper series of plot song ballads that he closes up with should raise this daytime treat up to blockbuster status.
Even if it is only for one expensive month, the Fringe welcomes acts from all over the world to the UK. The international buck is just as acceptable as the weak old pound after all. Mumbai's Urooj Ashfaq's debut hour Oh No! proves she has the IT factor. You could easily see her racking up the view count on a Netflix or an HBO special. Her stand-up is pure, personality driven and globally accessible. She has a fine routine about her friends trying to share her therapist like it is a cracked Disney+ password and an outlier about her mum's unwittingly pro-choice service for a local pigeon. She mixes things up towards the end by trying out one-liners, sweetly kissing the winners and pocketing them for the next show. Then she caps the hour off by reading her thirsty childhood diaries. Her ultra expressive eyebrows really selling the content as it is revealed.
South African Thenjiwe has plenty to say about Westerners' ignorance towards herself, her continent and colonialism as a whole. Her deadpan delivery and glamorous look mean she is a very accessible presence but there are times when the subject matter proves beyond her gag writing reach. Her personal experience of institutional racism sees her on surer footing but the comedy in The Mandela Effect often plays just a little out of sync with its own intent. Still, it is healthy for white audiences to move out of their comfort zones and try a different, less complimentary, point of view... even if it is just for one hour every August.