Review: Gutted! A Benefit For The Gilded Balloon

You know you've witnessed a good show when Eddie Izzard turns out to be one of the weaker acts.

But such was the quality of acts willing to offer support for Edinburgh's Gilded Balloon that the fundraiser in its name could offer well over three hours of stand-up, with little of the flagging normally associated with such epic events.

The venue, destroyed by fire last month, has been a cornerstone of the Edinburgh Fringe for 17 years, in which time just about every British comedian has stepped through its doors, either to perform or simply to get wasted in the notorious Late 'n' Live bar.

Because it holds such a wealth of memories, the Gutted! benefit in London's West End could easily have turned into an orgy of self-indulgence. Indeed, virtually every act dropped in a reference or two that would have made no sense to anyone unaware of the venue's formidable artistic director, Karen Koren.

But most exercised restraint, with the eulogies mostly limited to the acts opening each of the show's three sections: Jo Brand, Lynn Ferguson and Phil Kay, whose bizarre, babbling epitaph made almost no sense at all.

Otherwise, the most comics banged out a tight 'greatest hits' set, keeping the evening moving at a cracking pace. With more than 20 acts appearing, this was an unforgiving night for those wanting to indulge in anything but the most focussed of material.

Part one was efficiently compered by Stephen Frost ("we thought you were dead", as one blunt but honest heckler put it). He first introduced Phill Jupitus, right, who regaled the audience with some amusing anecdotes of meeting famous rock stars, providing a decent hors d'oeuvres for the evening, but nothing too substantial.

Next up, Norman Lovett started his offbeat set with some exquisite material, delivered with typically effective deadpan style, though his meanderings did run out of steam towards the end.

That's never a charge you could level at Ross Noble, whose unique mind is always in creative overdrive. Here he produced a typically insane stream of consciousness, from muffins with human faces and bicycling monkeys via Shakespeare-induced neck injuries and giant bees ridden by Matthew Kelly, yet also proving himself capable of turning in a tight set when required.

Facing probably the biggest gig of his career, newcomer Matthew Osborn, winner of the Gilded Balloon's annual So You Think You're Funny talent hunt, seemed a little uneasy. He didn't seem to know quite what to make of the Piccadilly Theatre, and the audience didn't seem to know quite what to make of him, with his posh persona and heavily coiffured hairstyle. Luckily, though, the quality of his material shone through, and he won many friends by the end of his set.

Two-hit wonder John Otway brought the first section to a barnstorming close with a hugely energetic, but equally self-effacing , version of his second hit.

First up in part two, MCed by Stephen K Amos, was Rhona Cameron, one of the least successful acts of the night. Her material didn't gel at all, as she struggled to maintain a train of thought - and the audience's interest. Grasping at tried and tested routines to win back their affection eventually worked, but not before over-running her time. Certainly not her night.

No such problems for Brendon Burns, who was on sizzling form, belting out a couple of the most bankable routines from his last show with energy and style. His was a funny, impassioned and belting set that got the show right back on track.

John Moloney, too, churned out a few favourites from his back catalogue - but then, doesn't he always? Brilliantly crafted gags, expertly delivered... and if anyone had heard him do the set before, they weren't letting on, and he earned a rousing reception.

Cockney motormouth Nick Wilty was perhaps one of the lesser-known names on the bill - at least outside the comedy community. But he put his years of experience to great effect, rattling through a brisk and faultless stream of sharp observations and straightforward gags.

Jenny Eclair kept up the hit rate by also playing to her strengths - a bitchy, filthy torrent of bitterness unleashed on a terrified front row as she stalked around the stage spitting bile to devastating effect.

Turning the manic levels right down, part two was brought to a close with the quiet brilliance of a shaven-headed Boothby Graffoe, whose superb laconic gems outshone many his better-known colleagues. He was again joined by the guitar virtuouso Antonio Forcione, providing the perfect union of Latin passion and grumpy British sarcasm.

The final third, compered by Arthur Smith with his usual prehistoric material, was launched with Rich Hall, left, ­ who declared that he was in well over his head on such a strong bill, and immediately left the stage. Fortunately, he came back for a incisive, witty and wry insight into the American psyche.

Character comic Count Arthur Strong gave an insight into nothing more than the mind of a madman as this decrepit, confused has-been re-enacted the story of Dracula in his Tourette's-tinged way. Strong can be tiresome in long bursts, but here he was on sterling form, his bizarre ramblings inducing many bursts of involuntary laughter.

Then came Izzard, who started his set with the bold: "Paedophilia, hmmm" - but then didn't know where to go with it. And that was the theme of his set - half-formed ideas in desperate need of structure and punchlines. With all his 'umms', 'aaahs', and 'yeses', Izzard is beginning to sound like a third-rate parody of himself, rather than the insipred genius we know he can be. Perhaps Alistair McGowan, who had incorrectly been billed to attend, had made it after all.

From paedophiles to Daniel Kitson ("I'm not one - I just like the look" he asserts). Like Izzard, he didn't seem to do much material, preferring instead to chat away about times he has looked like a twat on stage for saying the wrong things - a source of subject matter that seems to be getting worryingly larger. Unlike Izzard, he got away with talking about nothing, though it's unclear exactly why. Funny bones, I guess.

The long night, which never seemed that way, was brought to a close by Bill Bailey. He reeled out some decent gags and a so-so drum and bass track based on the idiotic sayings of George Bush, but his raison d'etre was a couple of rock and roll numbers, with the actor Kevin Eldon on vocals, to wind up proceedings.

There was, of course, an obligatory showbizzy love-in with thanks all round and promises to rebuild the venue, but, thankfully, nothing too schmaltzy, before the whole bill closed the night with a punked-up version of the Morecambe and Wise theme Bring Me Sunshine.

Overall, a fine night out. And all it took was for a hefty chunk of Edinburgh's medieval old town to be burned down. Now, where's the benefit for the amusement arcade that also got destroyed

Published: 20 Jan 2003

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