Jack Dee's Help Desk review: when comedians become agony aunts

Assembly George Square
Audience problems shared in Edinburgh festival fringe show: helped by John Bishop, it's less cynical than you might expect

You've got a nigglesome life problem that needs fixing? Who ya gonna call? Jack Dee isn't the obvious choice – a comedian whose trademark is surly indifference. And yet, here he is hosting a new format show in which a panel of comedians play agony aunt to the audience (and one another). It feels like a TV format in waiting, but passes a perfectly enjoyable hour on the fringe – helped considerably on day one by John Bishop , whose fun-loving bonhomie keeps the whole affair buoyant, and who seems to have a routine in reserve for any everyday difficulty you might be experiencing.

It's an improv format, essentially; it's what a telly panel show would look like if it weren't scripted and edited. We're given cards to fill in and submit in advance, describing something that's bothering us. And then, "the show you're about to see," Dee says by way of welcome, "is the show you wrote on the way in". The panel tackles our problems one by one – and what's slightly surprising is that Dee's grumpiness isn't part of the joke: his own contributions are low in the mix. The idea isn't to mock or bluntly dismiss the audience's problems. Alongside the jokes, a respectable effort is made to find workable solutions too.

Tonight, help is sought with noisy neighbours, an un-celebrated birthday, and by a woman carping about her husband's ginger hair. As with all improv, there are moments when inspiration refuses to strike. But Bishop is constantly on the front foot. "I find children in restaurants really annoying," says Peter in the crowd. "Peter, don't eat them," says Bishop. He proceeds to be very funny about Britain's child-phobic culture; elsewhere, he rants about peanut allergies and the ageing process.

Elsewhere on the panel, Jen Brister and Jon Richardson are more subdued. It's Sara Pascoe who stops Bishop dominating; she's the one most eager to offer useful advice, as with her pop-psychology job on the mother who complains that her daughter spends all her money. She's also the only panellist to volunteer a problem of her own, which is that she's having a recurring anxiety dream about having sex with the comedy critic of the Guardian. Claire Rayner herself would have been stumped by that one.

Occasionally, conversation strays into delicate territory, which made me wonder how the format would withstand sensitive information being revealed. The show also feels pretty dependent on the quality of participating comics; there's no structure to fall back on, nor does it come to any kind of climax. But on the basis of this opening Edinburgh performance, it's an enjoyable show – a light-hearted but never glib forum to air and maybe even dispel grievances, situated at quite a remove from the miserablist standup with which Dee made his name.

To 24 August. Box office: 0131 226 0000

Contributor

Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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