Who needs Edinburgh when you’ve got London? The best comedy festivals to see this summer

·6-min read
Jayde Adams will be appearing at the Pleasance festival
Jayde Adams will be appearing at the Pleasance festival

This is the time of year when I would usually be writing my annual Edinburgh Fringe comedy preview. But nothing is usual in 2021. While the Edinburgh Fringe is at least going ahead this year, it will be smaller than in recent years with fewer star attractions.

So why not avoid travel, dubious Airbnbs and random weather and celebrate London’s Fringe instead? One of the few pandemic positives is the amount of comedy in the capital this summer. Below we cherry pick the best of the bunch as the comedy world makes up for lost time.

Wonderground/Underbelly Festivals

The purple cow is heading west this year, to Earl’s Court (handout)
The purple cow is heading west this year, to Earl’s Court (handout)

The Wonderground and The Underbelly festivals used to brighten up the South Bank but this year the Underbelly’s famous inflatable purple cow venue has headed west to Earls Court, while there is a new Underbelly venue in Cavendish Square off Oxford Street.

Both events mix comedy with circus, cabaret and variety. At The Wonderground, comic livewire Mawaan Rizwan (Sept 11) hosts a night celebrating Pride, while New York newcomer Janine Harouni (Sept 23) rubs shoulders with musical comedian Jess Robinson (Sept 26).

Back at Cavendish Square there is a live podcast outing for high energy sketch combo Birthday Girls (Aug 21), spoof gallic grump Marcel Lucont (Sept 23) and ex-podium dancer – strange but true – Marcus Brigstocke (Sept 23).

The Underbelly and The Wonderground, to September 26: underbellyfestival.com and londonwonderground.co.uk

Stag Theatre – Not The Edinburgh Fringe

This new Vauxhall cabaret lounge is staging its own mini-alt Edinburgh, ranging from theatre and cabaret to improvised shows – just when you think every improv variant has been tried here’s the Dragprov duo (Aug 13, 14), putting an LGBTQ spin on the audience suggestion format. And watch Sooz Kempner singing musical comedy penned by Jerry Springer The Opera composer Richard Thomas in Wrong Songs (Aug 27 - 29).

Stag Theatre to Sept 5: abovethestag.org.uk

Ealing Comedy Festival

Reginald D Hunter will be appearing on Friday (handout)
Reginald D Hunter will be appearing on Friday (handout)

This annual west London fringe thing in Walpole Park pitches itself as "glamping without the camping". Not sure about the slogan but can’t fault the comedy. Headliners include motormouth Russell Kane and Julian Clary (so there is camping after all) and supporting cast includes Reginald D Hunter, The Chase’s Sinnerman Paul Sinha and Mock The Week stand-up Angela Barnes.

July 21-25: ealingsummerfestivals.com

Pleasance Festival

Milton Jones is king of the one-liner (handout)
Milton Jones is king of the one-liner (handout)

The Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh took its time announcing its comedy line-up but its north London sister venue was quick off the mark to announce a summer season of Fringe favourites.

As well as theatre there will be lashings of stand-up in the main house. Rob Beckett (August 8 & 9), last sighted on Instagram devouring fast food in an alleyway after the England v Germany game, is back in more familiar surroundings warming up for his tour. Edinburgh favourite Jayde Adams (August 12-14) will also be trying out new material. And for all killer no filler one liners, go no further than Milton Jones (Aug 26 & 27).

July 27 to Sept 19: pleasance.co.uk

Camden Fringe

The Camden Fringe is the closest thing we have to a London Comedy Festival. It has been running since 2006 and growing exponentially, adding venues and expanding well beyond NW1. And then Covid 19 stopped it at a stroke.

“We had to cancel and refund everyone for the 2020 Fringe which meant we didn’t get paid for the work we’d done,” says co-founder Zena Barrie. “We were not eligible for the furlough scheme, or any other grants because we don’t have premises."

Barrie hesitated about returning this year but as restrictions started to ease more shows and venues were added. “The programme is currently 266 shows and growing, around 1,000 performances in all. The various groups taking part are all so eager to get back to doing what they love.”

Sara Barron will be testing out her new show, Suffer, Fools! (handout)
Sara Barron will be testing out her new show, Suffer, Fools! (handout)

Highlights include Edinburgh Comedy Award Best Newcomer nominee Sara Barron road-testing her new show, Suffer, Fools! (2Northdown, August 4-6). I’ll always have a soft spot for this hard-boiled London-based American, having seen her perform in March 2020, just before lockdown.

Also lined up is former Inbetweeners/Fresh Meat star Joe Thomas, going solo with the autobiographical Trying Not To Panic (Bill Murray, August 22-26). And look out for Norris and Parker (Hen Chickens, Aug 23-26), a double act with an unpredictable, oddball sensibility.

August 2-29: camdenfringe.com

The Blue Tick Festival

MBBants AKA Michael Boahen will showcase his videos and characters (handout)
MBBants AKA Michael Boahen will showcase his videos and characters (handout)

One of the more positive aspects of lockdown has been the rise of the online crowdpleaser. This now goes full circle with online stars emerging from their Zoom cubby holes to appear at the first-ever Blue Tick Festival at the Rio Cinema.

Lucia Keskin (Aug 10) is the pick of the blue tick pack. Still only 20, the Margate-born YouTuber, alias Chi With a C, regularly goes viral with her shoestring budget pop culture pastiches. She made her name with a send-up of Friends long before the recent reunion and hit the bullseye with a video imagining what sitcoms would be like if they were set during the pandemic.

Elsewhere YouTube phenomenon MBBants (Michael Boaehen) promises laughs as he brings his videos and characters along on August 11. The line-up also includes The Pin, Alistair Green, Megan Stalter, Bilal Zafar, Chris Fleming and Olaf Falafel.

August 10-19: bluetickfest.com

Battersea Arts Centre Comedy Season

Shaparak (Shappi) Khorsandi is playing one of the venue’s courtyard gigs (Heathcliff O'Malley)
Shaparak (Shappi) Khorsandi is playing one of the venue’s courtyard gigs (Heathcliff O'Malley)

With the greatest respect to Edinburgh, London does have a more temperate climate, which means al fresco gigs can continue down south long after the mackintoshes have been brought out up north. Battersea Arts Centre’s comedy season runs until the start of October with outdoor and indoor gigs. Live at the Apollo stars Shaparak – formerly Shappi – Khorsandi (Oct 3) and Fern Brady (Sept 25) are among the acts performing in the venue’s courtyard.

But if you prefer not to run the risk of being caught in a deluge there are also some choice indoor gigs. Outspoken Britain’s Got Talent breakthrough act Nabil Adbdulrashid (Sept 1) opens proceedings. As he never stops mentioning, Jordan Brookes (Sept 6) is still the reigning Edinburgh Comedy Award champion as he won in 2019 and the prize has not been handed out since. And Malaysian comic Nigel Ng (Sept 12), best known as his internet alter ego Uncle Roger, returns to his slick stand-up roots.

Battersea Arts Centre, Sept 1 to Oct 3: bac.org.uk

The Greenwich Comedy Festival

A great lineup competes with a stunning location (handout)
A great lineup competes with a stunning location (handout)

The open air theme continues in South East London with The Greenwich Comedy Festival taking place in the iconic and very beautiful grounds of the National Maritime Museum.

Greenwich continues its unbroken run of shows since 2009 with a fantastic cream-of-comedy line-up over five nights that includes Sara Pascoe, Joel Dommett, Phil Wang and the star of recent Netflix hit Feel Good, Mae Martin. It is impossible to choose the best bill here but if you tie me up and force me to select one I’d go for formidable storyteller Darren Harriott (Sept 19) alongside Tom Allen, Suzi Ruffell and Maisie Adam.

National Maritime Museum, September 15-19: greenwichcomedyfestival.co.uk

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