Our latest Edinburgh Fringe reviews, from Julia Masli to Strategic Love Play

 (Pamela Raith/Matt Crockett/Rebecca Need-Menear)
(Pamela Raith/Matt Crockett/Rebecca Need-Menear)

This year’s Fringe may have entered its home stretch, but there’s still a palpable buzz in the air. Sure, it might mostly be collective excitement about the thought of sleeping again, but with the nominations for the Edinburgh Comedy Awards having just been announced, it’s clear there’s still more to come.

Among this review round-up, you’ll find five-star comedy from an Edinburgh resident, a pacey two-hander from a Succession writer, and an hour of clowning up for the Best Show prize.

Find this week’s comedy and theatre reviews below...

Krystal Evans: The Hottest Girl at Burn Camp – Monkey Barrel @ Hive ★★★★☆

Listen to Krystal Evans’s life story and it’s hard to imagine how the US comic could turn this into a comedy routine. Evans grew up in a little town called Sequim in Washington State. She was “straight-up poor”; her mother was mentally unwell. Then, when Evans was 14 years old, her house burnt down. Though covered in burns, she survived. Her sister did not.

It’s one hell of a tale to tell. And, speaking with her signature dry delivery (or “resting sarcastic voice”, as she calls it), Evans somehow finds a conduit to laughs in her “really f***ed-up childhood” – yes, her mother drove drunk, but she was really good at it! Comedy is found at every turn, even in the blaze. We’re shown the local newspaper cover declaring the death of her sister – a genuinely sombre moment until Evans focuses on the coupons sequestered on the next page.

Krystal Evans (Matt Crockett)
Krystal Evans (Matt Crockett)

That’s not to say that Evans downplays the severity of what happened, or the complexity of her feelings about it. You’d understand Evans for telling her story with a simple survivor narrative, but she isn’t afraid to explore the dark stuff. When she wonders aloud whether her narcissistic mother could have started the fire deliberately, the audience holds its breath. It sums up Evans’s Fringe debut: self-assured, potent, shocking.

Strategic Love Play – Roundabout @ Summerhall ★★★☆☆

A man walks into a bar. From this classic set-up, Succession writer Miriam Battye spins an intriguing story of love, hate, and crisp packet origami. The man in question (Archie Backhouse) is here for a first date with a woman he’s met on a dating app (Letty Thomas). In this two-hander, both leads go unnamed for the majority of the show; after all, as they point out, loads of people use fake names on the apps anyway.

Familiar though the set-up is, Battye’s resulting play is anything but. But rather than soften as the two fall desperately in love, the friction continues. They don’t get on, and they rub each other up the wrong way. Insults, sometimes disguised as backhanded compliments, sometimes thrown out without consideration, float in the air. Then she makes an unexpected suggestion: Who cares? We don’t have to like each other, just be together. What’s out there is much worse, no?

The cat-and-mouse game played between the pair is reflected back on the audience. Neither character is likeable – she’s overbearing and intense, he has a superiority complex. Yet despite this, the actors make you root for them, both individually and as a messed-up love match. That it’s performed in the round, however, means facial expressions are missed, and vital nuance and subtext get lost.

Even when the characters clash, there’s an undeniable frisson between Backhouse and Thomas. When one party leaves and the other, a little obviously, voice-notes their friends to describe how the date is going, the show loses pace. When they return, things resume. But the queasy feeling in your stomach, the not-knowing whether to root for their mismatched love or not, remains.

Liam Withnail: Chronic Boom ★★★★★

Last autumn, Liam Withnail was on a high. Fresh from a successful Fringe run, the Edinburgh-based comic was about to head off on a lucrative cruise gig. Then, while recording a podcast episode with equally talented Glasgow comedian Christopher Macarthur-Boyd, he received a call summoning him to the hospital immediately. His bowel condition was flaring up, and everything came crashing down.

The footage of said-podcast recording opens Withnail’s astonishing new show Chronic Boom. It sets the tone: one of natural humour and pained vulnerability. This, clearly, is Withnail’s brand. He has the swaggering charm of a seasoned club comic, allowing him to bring levity to moments of genuine trauma.

Liam Withnail (Rebecca Need-Menear)
Liam Withnail (Rebecca Need-Menear)

Withnail “didn’t want to write a show about poo”, he tells us, but here we are. Yet Withnail’s bowel movements provide ample opportunity for comedy material beyond your basic toilet humour. Observations about microdosing brown bread like others take ecstasy, and why his IBD-tracking app should come with a year-end round up, Spotify Wrapped-style, are sharply written, yet delivered with ease. When he personifies his bowel, he gives him a Ray Winstone-esque Cockney geezer voice, allowing his own body to call him a “slaaaaaag”. The crowd can’t get enough.

Anyone would empathise with Withnail, but it’s his ability as a storyteller that elevates this into something extraordinary. On stage, he immerses us in his 10-day hospital stay, stripping off into the gym kit his wife brought him, while the voiceover of a nurse waking him and calling him a “good boy” heralds each new day. If it feels repetitive, he tells us, “that’s because it f***ing was”. With each day, he updates his health on the whiteboard beside him. The audience is so invested, there’s real joy when his numbers are looking better and audible gasps when his health declines.

As you watch Withnail, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the balance he strikes between eliciting sympathy (never pity) and laughter. Last year, he ended his show with a routine about soiling himself while running the London Marathon. It was funny, he explains, but joking about the event changed his memory, stripping it of its pain. In Chronic Boom, Withnail finds humour in the darkest of times. The future might be uncertain, but life’s crappest moments can be pretty damn hilarious too.

A Shark Ate My Penis – Gilded Balloon Teviot ★★★☆☆

Trans people have always been here. People have been saying it for years: “We’ve always existed, you’ve just only started caring now.” The focus, however, has always been on trans women and drag queens. Trans men, like musician and actor Laser, have largely flown under the radar.

Now, Laser is putting himself front and centre, to tell the history of himself and his trans brothers. Introducing his musical solo show with the offbeat and awkward line, “I’m a trans guy, and by the end of the show, so will you”, he walks us through his fascinating life. Bar a short period as a lesbian and briefly identifying as non-binary, he has largely lived as a cisgender woman – and not just that, but one married to a man.

Putting to use his past career singing in a band, softly spoken Laser tells his tale through light jokes and simple (if a little underwhelmingly scored) songs. “Transgender time travel” is used to transport us into the past. The historical figures we’re visiting, Doctor Who-style? The real-life trans men scattered throughout history from the 18th century onwards, where they were often known as “female husbands”.

Despite the radical nature of the stories Laser recounts – particularly in these febrile times – his delivery feels surprisingly subdued. He’s not the most natural performer, and at times, the writing feels underplayed. Still, A Shark Ate My Penis is so personal, no one else could tell his story. As poignant as it is sweet, Laser’s narrative is one we should be listening to.

Julia Masli: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha – Monkey Barrel Comedy ★★★★☆

As any comedy obsessive will tell you, 2023 is the year of Big Clown at the Fringe. In the Pleasance Courtyard, you’ll find wacky US comic Bill O’Neill slamming his body to the ground as he slips, repeatedly, on bananas. And over in Monkey Barrel, at 1.30am, there is Estonian comic Julia Masli, with a show that vacillates between excruciating absurdity and heart-pinching pathos.

That’s the day I saw it, anyway. No two of Masli’s shows will be the same, meaning repeat returns are recommended if you can stomach the late night. She appears on stage, her eyes wide and gleaming, in a white ruffled gown and top hat with two feet sticking out of it. In place of one arm is a gold mannequin’s leg bearing a microphone. So far, so Fringe.

The premise is simple. Choosing members of the crowd at random, Masli pounces on them and asks one simple question: “Problem?” The conceit becomes clear. Masli is the agony aunt. Those chosen are her clients, professing the problems with their lives. The audience, working together under her guidance, have to find a solution to these randomers’ problems.

Such an innovative idea means the tone here can change very quickly, one minute ludicrous, the next heartwarming. On Monday night, one crowd member who runs out of beer is gifted a can by another ticketholder, while an actor who has lost his voice is taught vocal exercises by, bizarrely, Lucy from the Chronicles of Narnia films, who happens to be in the audience.

The show’s alchemy comes from Masli’s ability to get people to open up with a kind smile and raised eyebrow – when people don’t play along, the show can feel stilted. Under her guidance, honesty pervades. When a woman confesses, sat next to her daughter, that she doesn’t like her husband that much, the room inhales sharply. Minutes later, people are handing over cash that’s given to the homeless man outside. Only at the Fringe, or under the tuition of a performer like Masli, can you imagine this stuff happening.