Every time I go to my Turkish Barbers, he offers to "do" my eyebrows. I have no idea what he wants to do with them. And being the rare two parts of my body I have zero hang-ups about, I'm pretty sure I don't want my eyebrows fucked with. Then I saw a Korean film this week where a baby-for-sale's eyebrows are the main negotiation point for any potential buyer. And here is Chinese stand-up comedian Alvin Liu, who has a whole routine about eyebrows that I couldn't get my head around. Is this the cultural difference that is going to hold me back from being a true global citizen? Just what are the rest of the world's males doing with their eyebrows that I'm not noticing?
Liu's eyebrows routine was not the only time where his comedy of Shanghai origin (but English language) lacked full context. Maybe the unique pleasure of watching him was that, for every national difference he did explain in the set-up, there was another where the Glasgow International Comedy Festival attendees had to pull their weight and join the dots. His opening routine about the rude questions people will ask you in China if they think you have an unusually attractive girlfriend had a lot more clarity than later stuff.
There were also definitely moments over his fledgling 30-minute set when you could feel the liberal British audience's collective arsehole audibly tighten. His best bit, about the benefits of child labour, deserved more laughter. Sure, it could do with beefing up even more; I'd say there's more mileage to it as a subject than he's mapped out currently. But what he has is potent in its imagery, authenticity, perverse logic and volatility.
There are many points where he treads the line of offence with heavy boots. It is easy for newer act to confuse shock with what will work away from open mics and ex-pat gigs. But Liu evidences a decent toolkit, all the gadgets needed to become a circuit comedian of note. His long form stuff always reaches a laugh at the end, and he sells his weirdest material unusually, with his entire torso bent 90 degrees forward, practically crowd surfing the front two rows. Most importantly, and you can't fake this, he is likeable.
Embracing an unforced outsider perspective and being free of the censorial shackles of his homeland, the more credible stage time Liu finds on the London circuit the better he'll be at evolving the best 10 minutes he had here into quite a memorable club 20.
His partner in this themed two-hander is Michael Herd. They met in East Asia and clearly have continued their gigging friendship back over to Herd's native Scotland. Feeling very much like a teacher who knows his lesson plan down to the very last PowerPoint slide, Herd was less of a natural onstage. His storytelling stuff on Glasgow and East Kilbride life, however, shows a bit more promise. It comes across as less rigid and clearly is the work of an act who has gotten a bit more comfortable whilst on the job.
You can see why he and Liu, who emerged on the People's Republic English speaking circuit together, have shared an hour. Two acts with insider knowledge of the most powerful state in the world should churn up enough interested punters to fill a room. It is a good hook, and it was a good hook. Now this show is done and dusted, Herd probably needs to mothball a lot of his earlier China related material and cut everything down to a solid 10 that will wow in middle spots.
With only two years on stage to develop their craft, and two very particular years of disruption for these toddler comedians containing Covid and across the world upheavals, both acts have ages to find their feet on the UK circuit. Taking these hour slots at festivals is a fine way to stretch the muscles and gift yourself a more generous stage time than a five here or a ten there. And I knew I was taking a blind risk booking in to see two unknowns but they both exceeded my expectations based on what I predicted from their brochure blurb. The show I saw took place in an atmosphere-free room, next to an active pub kitchen, on a wet afternoon, with a 14 year-old kid front and centre... So, hands up, it possibly wasn't the best showcase for either of them... but all acts have to start somewhere on the festival scene. They stuck to their guns and played a less than ideal room professionally and with enthusiasm.
Watching a new act do longform can be a bit like settling into a barber's chair for the first time. You have to sit there and watch them hack away at your head for what can feel like an eternity, hoping they do something not too embarrassing, praying your face doesn't betray too much confusion or horror. I'd definitely give Liu a second chance to play around with my greying temples... but he'll need to stay away from my eyebrows.
Next up was a show that needs no notes. Ruth Hunter - This Ruth Is On Fire was exactly my personal chalice of poison.
As we settle in, her near inaudible walk-on music is a creepy refrain. "If you feel it behind you don't turn around and look." Or some such sonic terror mind parasite. Like the mothership's supercomputer announcements from a forgotten Seventies dystopian sci-fi TV series. That's seemingly how you prime a room for Hunter's cosmic universe of calamity.
Eyeshadow made of shattered rubies and fingernails painted like a goblin's bum, she holds the gaze and takes us down immediately into Lovecraftian kitchen sink anecdotes and intersectional feminist body horror. And no matter how uncanny or challenging she gets, Hunter maintains eye contact with the room like a seasoned pro. She knows who she is and channels it on stage with minimal trepidation, even during a work-in-progress show. She talks often of something malignant growing in her womb and acts out punting a baby in a throwaway aside. It was a pleasure being in this idea womb, and few of her unwanted progeny need kicking into touch.
Her opener builds up the presence of black mould in her Glasgow rental to a peak of existential dread. If you could boil down Hunter's style to a couple of words it would be... bleak whimsy. Later she converts that spooky bacterial presence in her grouting into a spin-off about a locked tenement cupboard that rings true: a universal experience for Generation Rent. One that borders on near observational even though its intended genre is oblique mystery. Her thickly accented Irish Da's attempts to get his head around ever improving identity politics is another crowd pleaser.
Literate, intelligent, off kilter and kinky - Hunter feels like a very organic, wholemeal comedian, a lo-fi force to be reckoned with. Eye mites with their own theme tune pester the front row. A flip chart of doodled and scanned nonsense is revisited with little rhyme or reason. Even her sock puppets have a vocabulary better than mine own. Hunter's brand of mental brevity and precision makes you feel smarter for grasping all the concepts (esoteric and academic) she churns up. Who knows what final form this will have taken come the Edinburgh Fringe in August but I highly recommend booking ahead to see a more polished version of what I witnessed and loved in Glasgow this weekend...
There was something scrappy and primordial about those first two shows. Watching acts relish the rare chance to perform on their own terms and not worry about the needs and negligence of a promoter as they reach into the firmament. A good mid-sized festival like Glasgow gives the hard grafting up-and-comer a chance to do whatever they like with an audience; showcase where they are on their stand-up journey; flex their developing style into a statement of intent.
Now I reckon all the above acts have come up the hard way. Playing atrocious rooms for a teensy bit of stage time to gain exposure, make progression or find their voice. The Sunday afternoon comedy show in the middle of an unsuspecting chain pub that some assistant manager has booked on a whim and not advertised to the hardened drinkers. The working man's club still expecting Bernard Manning or a bit of foil wigged cabaret. The unpaid "corporate" for a birthday party in a curry house with no mic or lights. You just can't imagine Ania Magliano playing such grim follies on her assured route to stardom.
She's a Cambridge Footlights stalwart. She's signed to Avalon at a point when most acts are toiling away for a slot in the final of a new act competition. She won Leicester's best debut show award before selling out the Fringe. She's written for more British TV shows than I have watched in the last few years. If ever there was a fresh comedian pre-ordained for Radio 4 and art centre tour stardom, it is Magliano. She arrived in Edinburgh last year dripping in the oil of the anointed and with her Guardian rave seemingly already written. Has she ever tried her luck at the Comedy Store King Gong Show? Will she ever again have to play a tough room that isn't already populated by her core demographic? Is she going to lose any sleep over the fact she'll never open the Chuckling Swan in Norwich for £80 cash?
And why do I care? Some misguided belief that struggle makes the art sweeter? Or jaded disbelief that talent alone can unlock doors in the comedy world? As Magliano is a clear and present talent. Empirically, she must be to have attracted so much support and encouragement at a rare early point in her development. The big companies don't often invest willy-nilly in new kids unless they see measurable scope for massive rewards.
Magliano's Absolutely No Worries If Not is, I presume, what a first hour from a comedian who has been raised relatively free range and organic feels like. Unbruised from bypassing the hardest knocks of the beginner's circuit. And therefore has an assured confidence in her writing and stagecraft to let it speak for itself. Unapologetically middle class and targeted to young people of all sexual persuasions. But also supported by a razor-sharp economy of words and a plummy affability that reminds of a young Emma Thompson. There's no cheap tricks here, just a prestige debut that ticks all the boxes of what comedy people like me are looking for; ticks them with an unwavering flair.
Privilege acknowledged, let's list everything eye catching about her debut tour. Our starting quarter dashes off the origin stories with a business-like briskness. Parents introduced, the concept of an adult having their mum as their best friend cheerily assassinated and the obligatory coming out story. Her peers are nodding away before the first around-the-room laugh, the rest of us are on board soon afterwards.
Her delivery style is fascinating. She talks at a fast, slightly random pace that should snarl up her timing yet surprisingly doesn't. Jolly cadence, punctuated by cringe buzzwords. The only times she paused for breath without laughter were the three or four acknowledged occasions where something that generally landed with her August and her Soho audiences didn't explode as she expected on this Saturday night in Glasgow.
And there is very little that doesn't hit so you can see why these outliers made her miss a step. Her retail insider Lush hack proved she has the chops beyond her tale of burgeoning bisexuality. Her exploration of Jacqueline Wilson blurbs touched a keenly felt nostalgic note. The room really dug her asides of the best way to wear her hair to a sex party. And that medium length story proved a worthy climax, bringing us full circle to her ultimate message of positive self-realisation.
I personally recognised much in Magliano's foolishness in acquiring a contrary cat as a cure for loneliness. I'm sure everyone will have walked away with their own differing favourite routine. They are all consistently on a par with each other constituent part of her hour. When quality is this steady across the board, it really boils down to how much a certain subject matter tickles you. Only a leadenly scripted faux horror tale of domestic settling down wobbled. The kinda trick that wows Edinburgh critics, gets two thumbs up from a hired director, but a lot of folks in Glasgae took as a cue for a safe loo break. Knowing she was too far into the rabbit hole to call people out for dashing to the bogs.
Moments like this do flag up that Absolutely No Worries If Not is slightly too enamoured with parroting the mechanics of a well revised Fringe debut. Yet Magliano is such a winning comedy presence that you can't blame her for doing everything right and putting that best foot forward. Especially when the results hit the funny bone and raise the eyebrows with such regularity.