Avital Ash Workshops Her Suicide Note ****
Monkey Barrel Comedy at The Tron (Venue 51)
With some justification, snobbery has arisen in comedy about shows where stand-ups surgically probe and exploit their deep-seated trauma, sacrificing laughs for tears as they push audiences through the wringer. But blithely dismissing this as performer self-therapy, or as a genre, risks throwing the baby out with the bath water and overlooking exceptionally funny hours like Avital Ash's Fringe debut, which strikes a deft balance between the blackest humour and pathos.
Ash's biological mother left her baby behind when she died by suicide, the American comic breezily reveals at the top. However, that's only after the Floridian, raised in Orthodox Judaism, has introduced herself as a descendant of generational Holocaust trauma and nominated a “scribe” in the audience to take notes for a suicide note that she herself is drafting.
As she goes on to relate stories of uncertain queer sexuality inhibited by religious dogma, tales of family secrets, lies and repression, and ones about recurring patterns of sexual assault, Ash is unquestionably asking us to bear witness to tremendous suffering. Yet the extremity of her psychological pain has found a thoughtful, even wry storyteller to share it, at times detached in a way that's quite remarkable, even if some aspects understandably bring her to tears.
Moreover, that extremity and her punchy writing make her original, with the blunt, casual one-liners she can toss out – about rape for example – understatedly but powerfully making points about the way that she and society have learnt to cope. The show isn't always slick, which wouldn't seem right given the subject matter. But it's well structured enough to be highly impactful, a calling card for Ash's glowing talent rather than the farewell or “f***you world!” it purports to be.
Until 27 August
Priya Hall: Grandmother's Daughter ***
Monkey Barrel Comedy (Monkey Barrel 2) (Venue 515)
Considering that Priya Hall's “chaotic” 2022 saw her not only leave her long-term relationship and acknowledge that she's queer, but quit her job and land a show business role she was only tokenistically suitable for, her Fringe debut has a terrifically strong focus. Since childhood, the comic has wanted a baby and although her route to parenthood may be unconventional, she takes inspiration from her grandparents, redoubtable mavericks to a woman and a man.
She may not always make the strongest connections between her IVF journey and the experiences of her activist Welsh grandmother and Indian grandfather. But each account has compelling, amusing detail: the extra hoops gay couples need to jump through for fertility treatment; her grandfather's linguistic debt to Will Smith; the dubious drugs once prescribed to mothers; not to mention the sharp, avaricious practices of Danish sperm banks. Given the subject matter, Hall barely mentioning her parents raises distracting questions. Yet the support she finds in Cardiff's queer community is cheering, even if narrative-wise it's extolled a little clunkily. An engaging, upbeat act, Hall also has an appealing way of adding sing-song emphasis to an ironic punchline that doesn't wear out its welcome.
Until 27 August
Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Venue 24)
Seemingly influenced by everyone from Samuel Beckett to Scooby Doo, Bishops are such a knowing, meta-theatrical example of a Fringe sketch act that their debut features them being reviewed and accepting an award. With layers built upon layers and constant rug pulls, Chris Curran and Noah Matthews don't lack ambition for the form. But it's all done with an enjoyably light touch, and they swerve pretentiousness thanks to their instinctive goofiness. Every skit involves them cheekily peeping out from behind the masks of their characters, maintaining a running commentary on the success or otherwise of its conceit.
Arguably their most representative sequence involves them confusing and confounding each other with dialogue that turns out to be stage directions and stage directions that turn out to be dialogue. With each setup, you never quite know which of them will hole the boat, though invariably, it's both in turn. Granted, you can sometimes find yourself grasping for something more tangible. And I'm not sure I fully understood their much-trailed ending. But underlying their hour is a roguish waggery and simple joy in performance, exemplified by a Stevie Wonder sketch that delightfully subverts simplistic blind gags, has biographical accuracy and tunefully bounds into the next bit of daftness.
Until 27 August
Krystal Evans: The Hottest Girl at Burn Camp ***
Monkey Barrel Comedy (The Hive) (Hive 2) (Venue 313)
Edinburgh-based American comic Krystal Evans had a difficult decision to make regarding her full Fringe debut: whether or not to lay bare the massive trauma of her teenage life. She's an over-sharer as a result of her poor, tragedy-filled upbringing. Nevertheless, what she went through is, in the modern parlance, a lot. So the fact she's managed to craft such a candid and dryly funny hour sharing (most) of the pain of her formative years without pulling many recriminatory punches, all the while retaining a philosophical and forgiving outlook, is a tremendous credit to her.
Evans was 14 when a fire destroyed her family's mobile home, leaving her badly burned. The character of her flawed, mercurial single mother is at the heart of the story, but she always had insecurities and a foreboding about her upbringing. With the benefit of decades' of hindsight and some belated, outside perspective on her youthful misgivings, she's extracted just about as much comedy as she can from this seismic incident (and others related to it). She's a strong storyteller, with an appealing blend of sly, puckish wit and down-to-earth cynicism. Still, this feels like a show that to some extent she had to divest herself of before she can fully flourish as a stand-up.
Until 27 August