At any given fringe, a show will emerge that crystallises the festival spirit, that feels as if it couldn’t happen anywhere but here. Tickets become hot property; famous faces and fellow comics start appearing in the crowd. This year, that show is ha ha ha ha ha ha ha by Julia Masli. It starts after midnight, in an airless underground room. Its audience can’t believe what they’re seeing – or experiencing, I should say, given that audience involvement is an all-encompassing part of the show. What happens from one night to the next is up for grabs.
The only guarantee is that Masli manifests as an agony aunt of few words, a healer to the crowd. A clown by trade, her 2022 show Choosh! was a Chaplinesque almost-dumbshow tracing a migrant’s journey from eastern Europe to the US. Here, the only stories are those supplied by audience members when Masli – a saucer-eyed naif in Victorian bridalwear, with a mannequin’s leg where her arm should be – approaches them and asks: “Problem?” The problems they share (a recent breakup; heartsickness for an absent son; chronic singledom), and Masli’s leftfield efforts to rectify them, constitute the show.
You could enjoy or dismiss it as so much stunt comedy, as our host skulls vodka with a hairy Finn, orchestrates a dating game, and obliges one gentleman to carpenter a broken chair. But Masli’s genius is to play it so innocently, and so earnestly, it starts to feel like more than a joke. Maybe a problem shared (with a daft Estonian clown; with a roomful of strangers) really is a problem halved?
There’s no question that tonight’s main volunteer Alayna has a therapeutic experience, shedding her clothes (her idea) at the show’s finale – a turn of events Masli handles not just with delight but sensitivity too, forestalling discomfort just as it threatens to materialise. In its place, collective joy, and giddiness at what Masli has brought into being: a great unexpected carnival of mutual care, ring-led with a featherlight touch by a clown whose mischief is matched only by her compassion.