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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2004

Bill Hicks: Slight Return
Pleasance Court Yard, Edinburgh

David Bowden

It is difficult to judge, artistically speaking, whether Bill Hicks' death at the age of 34, just when he was finally achieving mainstream success as an alternative comedian, was a tragedy or a blessing in disguise.

On the one hand it deprived the world of his brilliantly observed vignettes of American culture and politics, but on the other it crystallised him in the public consciousness at his very peak, allowing him to stand alongside his idols - Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison - without ever 'selling out.' This playful one-man production takes the 'what if?' scenario to a new extreme, imagining Bill coming back from the dead to do one last, incendiary show.

The result is a curious, unnerving but highly pleasant experience. The impression of Hicks is down perfectly, from the vocal nuances to the facial tics. The material - ranging from Coldplay, September 11th and internet porn - does not quite live up to the original's genius, but still make for eerily accurate and dryly delivered bedfellows. An obvious benefit for the writer, as 'Bill' acknowledges during the show, is that most of his favourite targets - the Bush administration, the bland homogeneity of popular culture and neo-conservatism - are still terrifyingly relevant today. At times original jokes are simply updated, with only some of the names being changed.

Slight Return is definitely an intriguing concept with a novel spin on the nature of biography. Sometimes you wish that the production would attempt to transcend its humorous content and commitment to detail to fully exploit the potential for such a performance - the brief moments where Bill reflects on his final cancer-ridden days touch upon an introspective pathos, and provide a small glimpse of biographical insight. For a stand-up comic Hicks very rarely focused much upon his own life, causing him to be remembered only for his ideas and wicked wit - but is this our only understanding of the man?

However, it is obvious that the intention behind this play is to both entertain and celebrate the back catalogue of a truly mesmerising performer. But the audience is left with the bizarre sight of a covers band attempting to re-write and change the lyrics to their favourite songs, and it works mostly as a great homage rather than a piece of theatre in its own right.

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