@ Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, on Sat 4 Jul 2015
(and first Saturday of every month)
A virtually full house is ready to greet compère Raymond Mearns on this sweaty Saturday night. The Gilded Balloon Comedy Nights are a monthly fixture all year round at the Festival Theatre’s Studio space (“the magnificent Edinburgh Festival Theatre … storage cupboard” as Mearns refers to it). Mearns is a comfortable and affable MC, and soon has the audience laughing along. A few of those brave enough to sit at the front become participatory targets, but while Mearns is confrontational there’s no malice in his cheeky insults. He’s well suited to the compère’s role, with a winning blend of conversational engagement and broad gags.
It’s an indictment of the UK circuit at the moment that a bill with two female comics is worthy of note, especially when those acts are as strong as Susie McCabe and Bec Hill, who between them provide the finest moments of the evening. McCabe is first to the mic, and the typically misanthropic Glaswegian is in unusually high spirits this evening. The self-described “roly-poly with feet” has phenomenal natural charm that easily carries the audience along with a well-crafted set, beginning with some lovely one-liners and then moving smoothly on to some more anecdotal long-form storytelling. McCabe is at ease and in her element here, and she sets a high bar.
Tonight’s headliner is former Scottish Comedian Of The Year winner Mark Nelson. Whilst his core material is strong, it’s an unexpected treat to see Nelson cleverly building on the audience relationships already established by Raymond Mearns. He strikes a good balance between off-the-cuff banter and scripted material – the latter of which is underpinned by some very strong gags. The pace feels perhaps a little slow at times and his subject matter is not particularly ambitious, but the jokes and the structure are undeniably good.
However, the evening belongs to the exceptional Bec Hill, who delivers an act so unique that it grabs the collective attention of the packed room from almost the first minute. To the general bafflement of the audience, she insists on walking us through a presentation of her self-penned children’s storybook, literally accompanied by a flip-chart full of hand-drawn illustrations. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Hill is a comic of rare skill and competence. The laughs come densely packed, and Hill’s straight-faced delivery only serves to enhance them. “God, this is brilliant!” gasps a woman in the row in front of us. We’re only too happy to concur.