Sunday, 24 February 2013

FESTIVAL DIARY Days 12, 13 & 14 - Chicken-bitches and Could-do-betters

Righty - got some catching up to do here. Had lots of work to do in the last few days so forgive me if I haven't been providing you with your daily dose of comedy festival reviews - I'll start bringing you up to speed now, with a summary of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the festival.

I ventured out on Tuesday night to see Nando's presents Chris Ramsey & Friends at the Y Theatre. It felt like a very different experience to the other gigs I've been attending throughout the festival. A big theatre, corporate sponsorship, big names from the telly, an audience full of young people who you distinctly suspected didn't go to see much comedy - it was a world away from the mostly small gigs full of dedicated comedy fans in pub basements or rooms above curry houses that I have become used to frequenting of late. In the lobby, Nando's staff handed out free chicken wraps to hungry punters, the room contained row after row of Nando's staff, and at the back of the stage behind the performers hung a huge Nando's banner - tonight, we were all chicken's bitches.

High energy - Chris Ramsey
As for the actual comedy, the first half was pretty enjoyable - Chris Ramsey was on top form, very relaxed in front of the large and responsive crowd, as he drummed up some good audience banter and kept the room laughing with a selection of cheeky, high-energy tales from his personal life, including his own take on being thrown off Soccer AM for repeatedly talking about horse-bumming at 10 in the morning. I remember occasionally thinking he was just saying things loudly and moving around a lot, rather than saying anything particularly funny, but all in all it was pretty enjoyable and the crowd were loving it.. He then brought on the first act, his good friend Jason Cook, who maintained the cheeky Geordie vibe with some chucklesome tales of parenthood, and the whole thing had an air of 'good mates mucking around' as Ramsey occasionally chipped in from backstage. Cook also got to have some fun with the audience, spending a significant amount of time putting down a heckler in the front row, who was insisting that Cook had heckled him - an impressive tactic that genuinely seemed to baffle him for a short while, and he was eventually forced to explain at length that audience members cannot be heckled as they are not part of the actual show.

Self-mocking - Chris Stokes
Then on came Chris Stokes, who brought a very different energy to the room, with his socially awkward persona, tales of being bullied and analysis of nerd-speak. He played to the room, sensing that perhaps this kind of audience was not used to an act like his, and took the approach of playfully mocking himself for his unusual appearance and geeky, vegan ways, to win a mixture of sympathy and acceptance from the audience, and it worked for most of his set. He almost came unstuck towards the end though, when some unexpected pockets of laughter in the crowd caused his nervous, self-doubting persona to become a little too real and he started questioning why they were laughing, looking behind him and checking his flies. It was a little awkward there for a moment, but he managed to get off stage without losing the room, leaving to warm applause.
Then came an interval. Well, it was more of a feeding frenzy really, during which punters guzzled down as much free chicken as they could, leaving the lobby of the Y stinking and covered in freshly stripped chicken bones and half-eaten wraps. Afterwards Ramsey re-appeared and brought the room up again, but when he began to implore the crowd to use the special Nando's hashtag when tweeting about the night, that was about my limit. I was unable to enjoy the everyday observations of headliner Josh Widdicombe, partly because it was some of the least inventive comedy I've seen during the festival, and partly because all I could think about was how the whole occasion now just felt more like a mass marketing exercise more than a comedy gig. As Widdicombe churned out standard observational schtick about iPhones and variety packs of cereal, I found myself thinking "why have all these people come here tonight?" and "why are they all enjoying it so much more than me?" And the answer was obvious - it was just like watching telly, with familiar faces performing unchallenging material, surrounded by heavy advertising. And just like that, I smiled again, filled with smugness about getting rid of my TV last year - safe in the knowledge that my comedy standards had been raised significantly by only going to see live comedy, most of which is not there solely for the purpose of delivering an audience to advertisers. If this makes me a comedy snob, then proud to be one I certainly am.

Wednesday was my one and only day off during the festival - I had planned to catch at least one show that day, but with it being my girlfriend's birthday, and me having lots of work to catch up on, I elected to stay at home and have a nice early night. I hope you saw something good that evening!

Book-reading - Brendon Burns
And onto Thursday. Two shows which, had I paid for a ticket, would've left me feeling pretty ripped-off to be honest. Firstly Brendon Burns arrived at Just the Tonic twenty minutes late and did 25 minutes or so of typically un-PC stand-up about attitudes to racism and disability, and keeping his inner 'liberal white dickhead' in check. I was finding it all refreshingly amusing, but then Burns proceeded to sit and read from his own book for the remainder of his set (a good 20-30 minutes), before setting up stall to try and flog copies of said book at the back of the room. The chapter of his book was actually pretty entertaining to be fair, but if I was a big fan of Burns who had paid for my ticket and also already read his book, I would've been livid.

Dark - Michael J Dolan
Then it was onto the Exchange Bar for Michael J Dolan. I was intrigued by the title of his work-in-progress Nothing Will Ever Be Alright Again Ever, and further inticed by promises that four out of every five people will not like his act. Usually I'm that one guy who does like it, and the promise of misanthropy and bitterness expertly siphoned into comedy had me all excited. Unfortunately, a half-empty room was doomed to sit there and watch a man moan about death, illness, old people and Grand Designs amongst other things for forty minutes, and then leave, having mustered few laughs along the way. Don't get me wrong - I love a good misery-guts act, but this didn't seem like a character, it seemed like a man who was genuinely depressed and it was a bit too real for the audience at the Exchange, and sadly lacking in the kind of big payoffs that are needed at the end of a good bout of moaning to release the tension. OK, on a certain level there is something darkly funny about a man standing there telling us we should all be dead and that he doesn't understand people who don't hate themselves, only to be greeted by a sea of blank faces. But I don't think this is how it's meant to be. I think we're meant to laugh along. But hey, it's a work in progress, and it did quite clearly say in the festival brochure blurb that this was not an accessible show, so those who feel they've wasted their money have only themselves to blame really. Maybe that's the joke...

So that's midweek covered. Sure, for this reviewer it wasn't the greatest few shows, but I was still optimistic about seeing some some good stuff on the final weekend of the fest. And that's what's great about his festival - you might see the odd show you don't get into, but there's almost always half a dozen ones you'll love just around the corner :)

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