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Pope Benedict: Bond Villain
Published on Tuesday, 23 August 2011
3

3 stars

Pleasance Courtyard (venue website)
Comedy
3-15, 17-29 Aug, 8:45pm-9:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 18+ only. Venue may not permit under-18's - check with venue before booking.

The slightly trippy surroundings of the Pleasance Green - it's essentially an inflatable igloo - seem as good a place as any to contemplate Man's attitude to God. And for such a thorny subject, Irishman Abie Philbin Bowman is as good a guide as any, too. In this risky, edgy show, Philbin Bowman draws on his own upbringing to present an alternative view of the world - alternative, that is, to the Catholic teachings handed down to him as a child. His thoughts are closely argued and consistently entertaining, for all that he sometimes wanders off track.

Evidently, Philbin Bowman isn't afraid of controversy. In his hour-long set, he compares the Pope to a Bond villain (rather convincingly, it must be said); he points out that he's blaspheming Islam; and he even - this one's really shocking - turns his fire on Santa Claus. But it's never offence for offence's sake; Philbin Bowman has a real and impassioned message, clearly inspired by his experience growing up in Ireland at the very time the scandal of paedophilia engulfed the Catholic Church. It's critique rather than mockery, and stayed on the right side of the most important lines.

For this is no angry young man. He argues his points with respect, humour and a megawatt personality; even at times when I disagreed with him fundamentally, I still laughed along at the jokes. It's sad (though perhaps predictable) that a Jedward gag got the biggest laugh of the night, but there was plenty of genuine education folded into the mix, including an eye-opening description of what it's like for a Dubliner to visit Northern Ireland.  A highly confident performer, Philbin Bowman kept his set zipping along, with natural charm counter-balancing the sharpness and prompting, from my neighbour, the inevitable comments about the Blarney Stone.

I felt, though, that the show lacked in premise. It's a standard form for stand-up, of course - pose a big question, spend half an hour talking about something else, then return to your theme at the end - but I know that Philbin Bowman can do better than that, because I've seen him do better in previous years. Much as I enjoyed his diversions to places as random as IKEA, I missed the coherent storyline I've enjoyed in his previous shows - and I was disappointed the promising "Bond villain" hook remained so under-used. His real theme is more to do with the collapse of the economy, which (he insightfully points out) seems to have affected traditionally Catholic countries more than traditionally Protestant ones; but again, that's an interesting observation which feels inadequately explored.

I wondered, too, whether he needed quite as many F-words - I've nothing against judicious use, but this felt like nervy compensation for an awareness of some weaknesses in his set. But I guess now I'm sounding like those aged priests he talks about, so to conclude: this is a solidly entertaining hour with plenty to laugh about, and some genuine insights into social change happening just across the water. Philbin Bowman isn't the only comedian to dare to tackle these topics, but - let's play out with a Bond theme - nobody does it better.

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