Comedian Sam Nicoresti starts his show with an elaborate sanitising ritual. Alex MacKeith kicks off with a number about lockdown with his dad: “One whole year,” he sings, appalled, “with one whole man.” Jacob Hawley apologises in advance for his in-yer-face opening gambit: “How many of you pussies have been vaccinated?” There’s no avoiding Covid-19 on the fringe this year – even as, at time of writing, the festival runs smoothly and largely infection-free. Covid cancellations are at a minimum, and everyone hopes – if we tiptoe – we might get to the end without the virus, that sworn foe of festivals everywhere, breaking out again.
This is the same virus that confronted us, after all, with what just two years ago seemed unthinkable: a fringe-free summer. When the following year only a radically slimmed-down event was possible amid ongoing Covid anxiety, many of us wondered whether the uncontainable highlight of our year, the world’s biggest arts festival and the event around which the UK’s live comedy calendar is constructed, would ever rise again. That’s the context in which many of us this year are experiencing a pinch-yourself fringe. Are we allowed to do this again? Are the crowds here in sufficient number to make it worthwhile? And – did somebody just cough?
Against that backdrop, not many artists have chosen to make shows about the pandemic. And yet – what else, after two years of on-off lockdowns and global plague anxiety, are they supposed to talk about? Rare is the comedy show that looks Covid in the face. Rarer still the one in which it doesn’t surface at all – as an ice-breaker, a relatable gag, or a looming presence against which comics define their personalities. For Sikisa, it cramped her social-butterfly style and inspired a whole show about partying. For Australian act Laura Davis, who lived in the woods under lockdown, a refugee from her mother-in-law’s too-small house, Covid flipped a switch: she couldn’t be a whimsical comic any more. Now she wants to put the world to rights.
For Gen Z monster Leo Reich, who never expected to spend his early 20s “Googling the words ‘death toll’”, it’s just another of the slings and arrows with which today’s young are besieged. Same goes for TikTok big-hitter Finlay Christie, reflecting in his fringe comedy debut on the experience (which sounds truly awful) of having one’s university career poleaxed by the pandemic. Try doing your French exchange in your mum and dad’s house. It’s not the same.
For self-deprecating Rachel Parris, coronavirus mocked her hubris when she planned a set about her new fame: “this was meant to be a show about me going viral!” Tim Key’s show Mulberry, too, is about being displaced from the centre of his own starry life. A London hit earlier this year, it dramatises in verse and standup the Alan Partridge sidekick’s seclusion under lockdown – a “story of a celebrity sealed away … my fame falling off me like slow-cooked lamb dribbling from a shin”. Key and fellow comic Nick Helm also look back in distaste on their months of performing comedy on Zoom, a wholly alienating experience after which – instead of repairing to the bar to soak up the adulation – they would close the lid of their laptops and stew in their own solitude and self-loathing. (Elsewhere on the fringe, at Hawley’s gig among others, comics cast shellshocked eyes back to another unloved pandemic phenomenon: drive-in comedy.)
Helm is an old fringe hand and recognisable sitcom face – he was the star of BBC Three’s Uncle – and is among the few acts to centre their 2022 show on their Covid experience. It began with a super-spreading Supergrass gig in early 2020, which infected the 41-year-old with (probable) coronavirus. He recovered just as the government announced a nationwide lockdown – his experience of which is traced in What Have We Become? Like much of his more recent work, it sounds the depths of his poor mental health. This is a set about being separated from and reunited with your family on either side of a long dark night of the soul. It’s also about Hello Fresh meal-kit deliveries and fighting for the last pasta in Sainsbury’s, for which Helm devises a particularly macabre metaphor.
You’ve got to remember that many of these shows are being performed in poorly ventilated rooms – often dank underground catacombs or hermetically sealed Portakabins, unhealthily crammed with fringe-goers. Are they wiping tears of laughter from their eyes, or cascading sweat from their brow? This was why, when in 2021 we began to realise Covid might never disappear, many of us feared the fringe might struggle ever to bounce back. It is an almighty carnival of exchanged respiratory droplets and close-quarters social gathering. In its optimum form, it is a world apart, thank God, from those peak-Covid experiences we had of sitting glumly in little isolated islands of auditorium, hazmat-sealed from our fellow theatre-goers by clinical perspex screens.
Julia Masli is an Estonian clown-comic whose lovely show Choosh! traces an eastern European migrant’s journey to the US. To suggest its oceangoing stages, she spits water from her mouth in playful little arcs towards her audience. You couldn’t do that on Zoom – and Chris Whitty probably still doesn’t recommend it. Masli’s drawing big crowds, though. While expectations are that fringe audiences across the board will be 10% or so down on pre-pandemic figures – not least because international tourism has yet fully to recover – the festival feels, so far, pretty densely populated. I’ve yet to sit in an empty, or even half-empty, room. You can’t get a seat in the Pleasance Courtyard, nor quickly navigate the Royal Mile: people, in big numbers, are back at the fringe.
There have been a few cancelled performances – including for comedian Nic Sampson who got Covid and for the play The Last Return at the Traverse, where a performer in the Fringe First-winner Happy Meal also had to drop out. But so far, the virus is being kept at bay – and spoken about, onstage, mainly in the past tense. And there’s something cathartic in that. Here was the plague that laid waste to the performing arts, that kept comics, dancers, theatre-makers off the stage, sometimes driving them to new careers entirely. Comic Lauren Pattison’s show It Is What It Is recounts her experience working on the freezer aisle at Morrison’s to keep herself afloat when live performance was verboten.
“Guys, what have we all been through?!” as Canadian goofball Tony Law would have it. To watch Law crack two supremely daft visual gags about lockdown (during which he forgot how to dress and took up falconry), or to watch Parris joke about “the single-use mask that you used all year”, or Josie Long styling out lockdown in disguise as a mafia boss under house arrest, is in some small way to slay the Covid demon. We were bowed, Edinburgh comedy is here to tell us, but we weren’t beaten!
That’s certainly the vibe at Aussie cabaret comic Reuben Kaye’s fabulous late-night show The Butch Is Back. More than any other I’ve seen so far, Kaye’s set is about celebrating that the nightmare is (however temporarily) over, that we’re back in a room together and, crucially, giving Reuben Kaye our attention. For Helm’s Zoom gigs or Hawley’s drive-in comedy, read Kaye’s tour of (he practically vomits the phrase) “regional rural Australia”, where his brand of high camp, gender-twisting comedy rather struggles to find its natural audience.
Such was the fate of Aussie comics forbidden from leaving their country. It happened to Rhys Nicholson in reverse: his show recounts being marooned in New Zealand as the Covid curtain fell. But it is their fate no more! And in Reuben Kaye’s hour, quite the exploding glitter-cannon of pent-up entertainment, and cheered to the rafters by its closing-time crowd, you just have to savour this contingent moment of freedom-from-Covid: laughing with strangers in a claustrophobic room, as if it were – as it used to be – the most natural thing in the world.
Shows to take your mind off Covid-19
Frankie Thompson: Catts
This talk-of-the-town clown-comedy, a lip-sync, found-footage oddity about our feline friends, may be about anxiety – but at least it’s not Covid anxiety.
Pleasance Courtyard, until 28 August.
Freddie Hayes: Potatohead
Freddie Hayes’ solo show, directed by Sh!t Theatre, about a humble spud who dreams of becoming a standup.
Pleasance Courtyard, until 29 August.
Mat Ewins: Danger Money
Reliably in your handful of purely funniest shows at any fringe, Ewins’ out-there, tech-heavy comedy could banish anyone’s blues.
Just the Tonic @ The Caves, until 28 August.
Alistair Beckett-King: Nevermore
Dotty and cerebral standup about the North Sea, cave paintings and professional bubble-blowers, from a comic with no firm grounding in the real world whatsoever.
Pleasance Dome, until 29 August.