Fascinating Aida

Belfast falls head over heels for three dirty old ladies

There’s something reassuringly luvvie-ish about the cabaret comedy stylings of the enduring Fascinating Aida. Like being air-kissed by a mug of Horlicks, they’re both cosy and camp, not to mention a little disconcerting. Above all though, they’re very funny.

Selling out the Elmwood Hall with what must be the oldest audience this side of an Ulster Orchestra recital, the all-girl trio, resplendent in shimmering purple outfits, regale the crowd with filthy airs, topical trills and even a spot of maudlin chanson. And when I say filthy, how does a little ditty about the delights of dogging do for starters?

With an ever-rotating cast during their 26 years ‘in the business’, Fascinating Aida are the front parlour version of the Sugababes. The only original member is the not-inconsideraly brilliant Dillie Keane, who has been doing this job so long, she knows every trick, every tick and every knowing wink to keep her audience enthralled.

Like a cross between Joyce Grenfell and a sozzled June Whitfield, Keane's on-stage persona is so perfectly nuanced - the audience so receptive to her pie-eyed yet pin sharp asides - that, at times, the evening takes on ritualistic proportions.

Keane is Aida-d and abetted by the startlingly amazonian Adèle Anderson, a woman whose near-baritone rumble would pacify the very hounds of hell. Her hilarious Dietrich pastiche, complete with salacious use of chair and near-tuneless teutonic droning of lines like 'if you can’t sing in key, be a German' is one of the highlights of the evening.

Completing the trio is the diminutive soprano Liza Pullman, who provides a sweet musical counterpoint to her colleagues' innate comedy talents.

And it is the comedy that makes the show. Deceptively satirical, vicious and often shocking, Fascinating Aida get away with material that would normally have this somewhat elderly audience on the blower to their local MP.

A series of scabrous yet whimsical musical vignettes cover such topics as 'vengeful monopod' Heather Mills, the fact that 'BA are a bunch of dicks', and blaming Gordon Brown’s handling of the pension crisis for forcing them to reform.

Keane chugs away at the old ‘joanna’ cheerfully relaying her penchant (in the style of a cockney sing-a-long) for ‘doing it’ in public. 'How are the older members of the audience coping?' she asks midway through the song, before launching into the quite disgusting dénouement. She knows full well most of the audience are both older and loving it.

In between songs, Keane engages the crowd with some charmingly rambling monologues, anecdotes and reminiscences, the veracity of which are highly and deliberately dubious. There’s a lovely wry discourse about gardening becoming more important than sex as one gets older – slightly hesitant laughs of recognition pepper the Elmwood Hall at that one.

Toilet humour and light satire aside, the thread that runs through much of Fascinating Aida’s current work is the sense of the passing of time, reflections on mortality and a palpable concern, if not fully fledged anger, at the state of the world.

Which brings them to their show-stopping finale, 'The Tesco Song'. A full on gospel ‘I wanna testify’ style epic about the iniquities of mass produced foods and grotesque consumerism culminates in the chorus: 'Jesus saves, but Tesco saves you more'.

Once again, it’s simultaneously edifying and unnerving to bear witness to a middle-aged, middle-class audience lap this material up. Whether they’ll stop their weekly shop in their local Tesco Metro is another matter entirely.

They encore with a little pre-planned song about Belfast which manages to fit in the Waterfront Hall, Twelfth of July and Nuala with the Hula. They didn’t need to endear themselves any further, but it is this last, skilful manipulation that induces a standing ovation. With nary a dry eye in the house by this stage, it’s as effusive and spontaneous a reception as you’ll see at this year’s Belfast Festival.

As the three Aidas scurry off stage to sign merchandise for their adoring public, we can thank Labour’s Thatcherite mauling of our economy for at least one small mercy – getting these three very funny women back on the road singing for their supper.

Joe Nawaz