Edinburgh Fringe

Ed Byrne, Paul Sinha, Janine Harouni, Mark Watson - Mark Muldoon's Fringe Diary

Janine Harouni

Come the end of Edinburgh 2023, people generally seemed more upbeat about the whole event didn't they? If nothing else, noticeably more positive than the slightly doom-mongering pre-fringe atmosphere. Ticket sales were up on last year, as were vibes: it just seemed like a normal, relatively cheerful fringe. A genuinely exciting place to spend August. Maybe the downbeat atmosphere in the runup to the fringe meant that even a moderately successful event felt like a triumph.

In such an atmosphere, good to maybe keep in mind that there's little sign of the Fringe's problems disappearing anytime soon. This year felt even more like an event exclusively for the middle/upper classes - less diversity, and even less affordable for performers or visitors. Over the last year when people have mentioned to me that they've always wanted to visit the Fringe, I've told them: don't bother. It's not worth it anymore. It became too expensive. Which is heartbreaking advice to issue, but the vicious costs involved in performing, or visiting Edinburgh in August can't and shouldn't be ignored.

Still, locals/fanatics/people with high disposable income again found themselves surrounded by world class comedy. Chief amongst the offerings was Ed Byrne. For a while you wonder if he's written the lightest, frothiest show about bereavement the Fringe has seen. Ed's younger brother Paul tragically died last year, age 44. He was a respected comedy director, so a good number of shows in Edinburgh last year at least touched on his passing. Ed took a little longer to write this show, but what a magnificent piece of work it is.

Tragedy Plus Time. Ed Byrne. Credit: Roslyn Gaunt

Ed finds much to laugh about as he walks us through the whole sad story. As the show approaches its conclusion he does actively attempt to make a serious point or two, but his professional commitment to his job ensures he never says anything worthy without ensuring there's a brilliant joke at the end of it. Interestingly, the absolute dweebs that run this website were able to use their technical wizardry to scientifically pronounce it to be the best reviewed stand-up comedy show of the 2023 fringe. Which - once you've seen the show - certainly won't come as a surprise.

Most comedians consider Edinburgh gruelling enough. Across town, Janine Harouni completed her 22 shows whilst heavily pregnant - 8½ months by the end of the month, when we saw her. You can understand a certain level of determination to still perform the full run: it's a really accomplished hour, deserving of her Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination. Her material on abortion went down particularly well. The show transfers to London in December - presumably Harouni will at least touch on how the intervening months have gone.

Image shows left to right: Lloyd Henning, Peter Sutton, Foxdog Studios

Great to have Foxdog Studios back at the Fringe. Their technologically-dazzling shows are a hoot. A sizable proportion of the performance hands over control to the audience: at one point, then, I find myself using my phone to control the onstage head of a creature that resembles a yellow Gonzo from The Muppets. The Foxdog team were displeased with my efforts, so every other phone screen in the room was offered a vote-of-confidence in whether I should be allowed to continue or not. They resoundingly said they had no confidence whatsoever. A unique fringe thrill.

Mark Watson marks his 20th year as a performer at the fringe by starting his show - as he's sometimes minded to do - unamplified and in amongst the crowd. He's got something to get out of his system before starting the show: mock-jealousy of venue-mate (and Britain's Got Talent champ) Viggo Venn means he wants to take him down a peg or too. There's other highlights in the show: an insult aimed at The Lion King stage show, and a reflection on great mate Alex Horne's successes, for example. If you'd stop short of calling it one of his more essential shows, it's still another dependable offering from this fringe stalwart who's always been reliably great company.

Celya AB

Celya AB is halfway through acting out a bus driver coming on shift when she provides an important update: "every review I've had says this bit is too long. I want to stress that I've made it one minute shorter for you guys". This show Second Rodeo (great title) is another hour of lovely gentle whimsy from a comic who appears constitutionally opposed to seriousness. It's maybe not quite as well honed as her appearance at Soho Theatre earlier this year, but worth noting, as an aside, that she also wins the British Comedy Guide award for best pre-show playlist (a prize Lauren Pattison won in 2022, its inaugural year).

Expect to hear a lot more from Ian Smith, who seems destined for the big leagues. The tormented funnyman can expertly carve out long passages of fantastic material from relatively trivial moments in life, but he does also seem to have a habit of taking himself off on mad adventures, which form the storytelling backbones of his shows. His last show is available now on ITVX, of all places, and it comes close to matching the quality of this one.

Paul Sinha

Back in June, Paul Sinha was responsible for one of my comedy shows of the year so far. Turns out that show also included a handful of jokes from his then-upcoming 2023 Fringe offering, Pauly Bengali. Fair enough: this show is still a reasonable showcase for what a superior comic Sinha is - his presence on stage still an acerbic delight.

Elsewhere in town, a comedian is attempting to persuade her audience that geese should be their favourite waterfowl. That's very much the tone at Adele Cliff's show. At another point, she senses there's a 'landlord' vibe in the room, which she has ample fun with. It's good, silly fun from someone who's grown to become a reliable fringe presence.

Martin Urbano. Credit: Dylan Woodley

Martin Urbano's show is a knottier affair: he plays a comedian that's been 'cancelled' and is now starting out on the comeback trail - a theme that seems to have evergreen topicality in this industry. Plenty of the jokes, then, are - it's fair to say - close to the bone. For anybody minded to complain about the fact that apparently "you can't joke about anything anymore", it serves as an example of the fact that you absolutely can: just create an appalling character to say your jokes for you. Telegraph readers will be delighted to discover exactly their kind of humour back in fashion on the Fringe, and Guardian readers get to laugh at well-constructed jokes they'd normally recoil at, whilst also admiring the different levels at work in the show. Ingenious.

Commanding material also from Mark Nelson, who takes a knife to many topics, including all sides of the political divide - obviously Tories aren't spared, but neither are Keir Starmer or Nicola Sturgeon. It's a pleasingly bracing hour.

Michelle Brasier also really impresses. She's gratifyingly relatable when detailing just how polite she'll be even whilst becoming a victim of a particularly wild bout of pandemic-era online fraud.

Michelle Brasier

Huge Davies seems to take a slightly antagonistic attitude to his audiences. Unless it was just us and we deserved our telling off, I suppose. His sometimes-clever, sometimes-silly comedy has an alternative spirit to it, but succeeds in being very well received in every room I ever see him in. The (presumably) mock-disdain he aims in our direction only adds to the fun.

Having been extremely impressed by a rough work-in-progress show by newcomer Priya Hall way back in 2021, her actual debut hour feels oddly anticlimactic. It doesn't seem to try to get out of third gear. If it's not a slam dunk, then, Hall still has charm to spare, and remains a promising new talent.

Garrett Millerick. Credit: Ed Moore

Finally, you wonder how Garrett Millerick's voice holds up over a full month at the Fringe: his show is 70% shouting. It's impressive to witness his ability to pull together a good quality hour in just a few weeks - this show was largely written in a month (which I'm able to confirm, having also seen an early work-in-progress at the show at the start of July). It's more of the enjoyably-contrarian takes you expect from him. He's had a run of blistering form in recent years: this represents an enjoyable, solid addition to that canon.

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Mark Muldoon is also available on Instagram and Twitter, despite the fact that you should hesitate to even grant him technological responsibility over two social media accounts.

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