It is not that late. Only 8pm on an evening where most people are off work. During that Celebrations-fuelled no man's land between Christmas and New Years. I guess a full day of high street sales, Edinburgh torchlight processions (and circumnavigating said torchlight processions) has made some audience members tired and fidgety. Take the young lady a few rows in front of me. Sleeping on what I'm hoping was her father's shoulder or shifting over to the more age appropriate guy who really didn't want her on him. When more lucid minutes struck her, her hands were stretched in the air, grasping for nothing. Or actively shaking shit out of her rat's nest mound of hair for entire sets. Every group that sat directly behind her quickly tried to find other seats. I got a bonus burst of humour whenever new victims wondered why such good seats between me and her were going empty.
The Assembly Rooms' Ho-Ho-Hogmanay was a big room stand-up event with the emphasis on the spectacular. Insta friendly chandeliers illuminated ornate high ceilings while acts walked out to Spinal Tap plumes of dry ice. Visually the bare minimum for a rock concert but perhaps not all that conducive to the intimate atmosphere that must be faked for live comedy. At least an easy 1000 people rounded up in a ballroom should generate the energy but the laughter often got lost in the rafters through no fault of the comedians. Plus, denying so many folk any bar or loo breaks over two hours created a restless lack of cohesion. I mean, c'mon, some of us have to scratch our scalps with both hands vigorously between naps.
I made the tough choice of travelling two floors down to the gents at the start of Larry Dean's set only to rush back to discover he was having an absolutely gorgeous time. He had the girth of performance to fill the grand stage and his engine of continual code switching punchlines plastered over the cracks of this misguided venue set-up.
Susie McCabe opened the show in wedding day glamour. Looking on point in a tailored deep grey suit. She kept things seasonal with a savage takedown of a school nativity that had been mutated into Bible's Got Talent. Her stay at a budget hotel kept the bent of her material on upending the depressingly everyday. Her view of the Hull industrial estate from her third floor penthouse window had the artistry and topicality of a Grayson Perry tapestry - stitched with simple, unfussy words.
All this was a teaser, setting up her main longform story about a honeymoon night at Edinburgh's hoity toity Balmoral Hotel. Her streetwise paranoia, triggered by the unannounced turndown service, culminated in a lovely coup de grace topper about a Double Decker chocolate bar. McCabe's fish out water stylings are anchored in an amusing realism. Her delivery has the structure and clip of a poetry performance by Liz Lochhead. It is no wonder she is considered one of the jewels in the Scottish comedy scene's crown.
A triple headliner bill must be difficult to programme but putting Fred MacAulay at the dog end of an endurance show worked well. "Your enthusiasm has been misjudged" he proclaimed dourly as he walked on to a masterful bit of audience recharging by Emmanuel Sonubi. I'm going to guess that MacAulay's name had the most around-the-room recognition from the mums and dads and office party casuals in the audience.
There was naughty stuff about pubes (or lack thereof) being the generational rubicon. MacAulay's description of his porridge breakfast had a taciturn chemistry about it. And recent lockdown memories were rekindled with an outré spin on Happy Birthday timed handwashing. A bit of astute political peppered with a generous chunk of local and a hodge podge buffet of party bits stand-up ended the night with grumpy proficiency, if minimal structure.
One target market punter grumbled, as we stampeded down the Georgian stairwell, that MacAulay was a bit ruder than they had expected. What the fuck did they make of Larry Dean, I wonder? My only reticence was Fred went a bit harder and longer than he needed to be on the sweet American young lovers near the front. They'd been notable good sports through the night. He was playing to his sections in the room at their expense. Maybe the real generational divide is who a comedian selects as a deserving mark to tease from the microphone these days?
Martin Urbano's Comeback Apology Tour is a character piece. A meta man-and-mic satire. A bright mirror held up to a brand of middle-aged road comics and Netflix special stars who feel like they have been "cancelled" for both material and allegations. Who now seem to make hay out of the newly emboldened audience this has created for them. A heavily scripted hour with a near constant focus on switcheroo pull back and reveal punchlines, Urbano only interrogates and bruises the subject he is lampooning very lightly.
The most acute verdict on the phenomenon that is delivered here comes from the choices made at the very start and the very end. Urbano skulks onstage with little fanfare, clutching a faded corporate branded gift bag from some long forgotten high paying private gig. And he leaves the stage stealthily and disgruntled handing over the spotlight to a well selected mark from the audience. If there is commentary intended in these loaded but subtle moments, it is that this type of out-of-date broken man needs little applause, attention or platforming. Rather than amplify them we should just let them scuttle off to whatever sad, dark corners of the comedy grind they can find solace in. And a quick note on that pressganged audience member utilised in the finale: her and Urbano's chemistry was popping.
Comedy about comedy and deeper intentions aside, this is a slick, joke heavy if slightly one note show. Urbano's timing and voice are on point yet the script dictates the flow. There's little sense of danger once you get past the inverted commas "bad taste". His stage craft is consummate, he lands rope-a-dope gag after rope-a-dope gag and he's smart enough to introduce some prop jokes and audience participation in the final stretch... albeit heavily scripted participation. Lacking the apocalyptic bitterness of Neil Hamburger, or seductive chaos of early Nick "The Human Car Crash Of Light Entertainment" Helm, it is hard to see what cult legs Urbano's alter ego has. As someone immersed in the comedy scene and very much attuned to both the hack material and topical monster being neatly skewered I really enjoyed this, but would prefer to see Martin Urbano the performer and writer emerge outwith this particularly insular caricature.