Edinburgh Fringe Review: Charmian Hughes, Banshee Labyrinth

Charmian Hughes


There has been an intriguing resurgence in interest in the early days of alternative comedy in recent years. Stewart Lee has namechecked various veteran acts, Alexei Sayle has gone back onstage and the death of Rik Mayall also prompted a re-assessment of the era that comedy almost forgot.

Now comes Charmian Hughes, who started in stand-up when Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp and the Enterprise Allowance Scheme meant anyone could have a bash. Her new show, When Comedy Was Alternative, looks back fondly at those mad days, when comedy really was oppositional and anything went.

Hughes actually begins her story much earlier, recalling her posh-ish, right wing upbringing and how her older sister was the perfect one. In a way being funny was Charmian’s revenge. Although it took a while for her to hit her stride and before she became a stand-up she had a crack at clowning. Donning the red nose briefly onstage she seems pretty good at it, with a mobile, expressive comic face even without saying anything.

But for true comedy anoraks the story picks up when Hughes gets to the mid-1980s with stories about familiar-yet-obscure names such as Jenny Lecoat and Jim Tavare and legendary venues such as The Earth Exchange and The Tunnel Club. Malcolm Hardee, he of the massive testicles, was an early supporter, although like Sean (no relation) Hughes and Arthur Smith chose not to get romantically involved with Hughes, much to her chagrin.

The tale continues into the 1990s with Hughes eventually juggling parenthood and comedy. She treads a neat line between being gossipy and making pertinent points about the changes in British culture and can be a little bit scatty, but that’s part of her charm. As things come up to the present day one does wonder why comedy is not so political and angry and anarchic any more. There is certainly just as much to be oppositional about these days. But I guess there are also careers to be carved out, which not many performers considered back then. 

Fans of comedy as well as fans of comedy history will enjoy this show. I did suggest to Hughes afterwards that there might even be scope for a book if she had more anecdotes like these up her sleeve. She said that unfortunately the stories in her show were the only ones she could remember. She was obviously having far too good a time. 

Until Aug 30. Free. Info here.

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