Given that Edinburgh is something of a Glastonbury equivalent for guardianistas, Steve Bell's show seethes with lively, middle-aged enthusiasm. Yet the first face we are greeted by is not Bell's, but David Cameron's: Behind the ample assembly stage shines a huge close-up of the PM. As Bell points out, the strange little smile playing on our leader's lips makes him look a lot like Frodo Baggins in this snap. A degrading comparison? At least Frodo doesn't have a condom on his head.
Anyone who's seen his cartoons will know that Bell is a genius. He not only possesses a fantastic wit and a highly attuned political ear, but his ability to incorporate such sharp references to art and literature betray impressive cultural expertise. His six years as an art student are evident in his repeated recycling of pre-Raphaelite paintings; Millais' Ophelia is a favourite. Cartoons of Blair as an electricity pylon, meanwhile, demonstrate a comic imagination few can rival.
In person, predictably, Bell can be very scathing. Though it's with more amusement than aggression that he calls David Cameron 'a Tony Blair tribute act', and Blair before him 'a Thatcher tribute act'; a solemn undertone definitely emerges when he describes how terrifying he found his first Tory conference, armed with only his small sketchbook against the 'Tory psychopaths' surrounding him. We get a great insight into the research process behind Bell's cartoons; the fledgling sketches, the early ideas, the campaign posters, the photos. And, wonderfully, several of the photos he shows us make the images we've come to associate with his cartoon style look more like honest portraits. We see, for example, the rare snaps of Thatcher and Blair that capture for all to see their 'mad eye'. We also get a hilarious zoom-in on Cameron's chin, which, as Bell notes, shows 'no visible hair follicles.' Cameron really is shiny and smooth. That's why he made such a good jellyfish.
Bell demonstrates all the sensitivity, wit and dedication you'd expect. What you wouldn't necessarily expect, though - and what makes this event so brilliant - is Bell's theatricality. He's wonderful. In fact, Bell is so comfortable onstage that it's hard to believe he was, as he claims, a terrible teacher. Take his accents; of course Bell is good at accents - you might recall the image of chimpanzee-Bush coming off a plane: "Yurp? Is this Yurp? Are these Yurpeans?" Yet simply having a good ear doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to pull off any accent as consummately, nor act out a cartoon strip-script with such brio as Bell displays. Particularly memorable is Bell's rendition of the strip in which William Hague froths at the mouth during a speech about his Europe obsession. It's irresistibly funny.
What makes this show perfect is Bell's perfect balance between the cynical, the amusing and the disturbed. Take the mixture of absolute joy and horror he communicates in response to William Hague. Bell goes into hilarious paroxysms of delight - 'Aahh! Yay!' - at the prospect of a Hague news headline: yet another chance to draw the Tory minister’s bizarre stubbly head. But it is, of course, with a considerable amount of irony that Bell remarks that Hague's face is so much fun to draw - that he is 'a gift from God.' Bell's work is ultimately tragicomic. But with his big, hearty, infectious giggle, Bell convinces us that it's one we can laugh at. He's a joy to behold.