Given the title of Eleanor Morton‘s new show, Happy Birthday Katie Lewis!, it’s not surprising the audience finds itself press ganged into being guests for a surprise party for her estranged best friend.  Once we’re all firmly trapped, party hats are handed out and poppers are popped, before Morton tells us her plans for her friend. Whether she turns up or not is another matter.

As captors go, you couldn’t wish for a more accommodating one than Morton.  Her lovable, hesitant persona is very much in evidence.  Whereas many comedians adopt a confident, extrovert demeanour to mask social anxiety; she heightens the awkwardness for comic effect.  Her rambling, slightly childish monologues strike gold when they reveal a mischievous glee in ideas and actions that are socially inappropriate.  For example, her concept for Katie’s hen party, marrying the twin themes of 90s nostalgia and party games, nods toward a darker streak than is otherwise obvious.

However, whereas Morton’s 2015 show, Allotted Mucking Around Time was a joyful Fringe highlight partly thanks to a free-form, free-wheeling structure that was unfettered by any over-arching narrative, Happy Birthday Katie Lewis! feel slightly constrained in comparison.  Musical numbers are shoehorned in as party pieces, when they would previously feel far more organic when viewed as evidence of Morton’s impressively random, chaotic mind.  She also, having gone to the effort of establishing a narrative flow, often drags proceedings to a halt with games of pass the parcel.

There is a pleasing, bittersweet edge to the show, which will be pleasing to any who have seen her as too overtly whimsical in the past.  Morton subtly deals with the issue of friendship lost through the inevitable intrusion of time and distance, imbuing her trademark surrealism with a gentle, wistful melancholy.  However, we know straightaway where this narrative is taking us.  There has been a proliferation of comedy this year with a Beckettian undertone of hopeful futility; of delayed gratification and false starts and Morton utilises the same dramatic trope.  Despite the lack of surprise however, Morton mines this outcome for a really great payoff gag, and a sublimely gawky and endearing Napoleon Dynamite-esque dance number.

While not the triumph of last year, there is still much to enjoy in Happy Birthday Katie Lewis!  Eleanor Morton is a wonderful oddball who works best when she lets her flights of fancy soar, but here she doesn’t really let them out of their fetters.