I’ve been overwhelmed by the Comedy Festival, which ends this weekend. Here’s a wide selection of reviews if you’re looking for a giggle before it finishes.
Contact! By Angus Grant 2.5 STARS
The Arts Centre, Until April 29
Netball. Opera. Why not? If you can wangle Jerry Springer into a libretto, you can probably do anything. Angus Grant’s Contact! is a cheesy operetta that goes behind the scenes of a suburban netball team. It’s packed with hormones and teen spirit, training tips and scrag-fights, girls with coltish thighs and a near-erotic obsession with horses trilling dizzily as they sweat it out on court. And naturally, it ain’t over until the mole on Wing Attack sings.
Grant’s first attempt at composition is encouraging, even if it isn’t always easy on the ears. The score roves from parody of high Romantic opera to jaunty cap-doffing to Gilbert and Sullivan, and the latter works best, with the orchestra heavily skewed towards strings and mallet instruments. This lends it a cartoonish quality, especially effective during the comic choreography of the training sessions.
The plot hangs on team tensions created when alternative hipster and gifted shooter Daisy (Janet Todd) joins the ill-fated Rangers before the state finals. Straight-laced netball freak Gayle (Georgia Brooks) doesn’t like her, and in the ugliness that follows, Coach Bev’s (Donna Maree Dunlop) dark secret is revealed, leaving the team without a leader.
The performances embrace the show’s ridiculousness, but the singing can be coarse and shrill and the occasional virtuosic effects aren’t really ornate or silly enough. The show’s funniest moments reach not for implausible narrative devices, but use the artifice of the operatic form to skewer ordinary teen enthusiasms and resentments. There’s a deep hilarity to opera singers ripping out lines like: “whatevs” or “her phone is going to straight to message bank”, for example, and you wish the show worked the teen-movie angle harder.
Contact! is an affectionate tribute to one of Australia’s most popular sports. It would, however, benefit from a comic luminary reworking the libretto to sharpen its incongruous humour.
DR BROWN – BEFRFTGTH 4 STARS
The Tuxedo Cat, Tue-Sat 10:15pm, Sun 9:15pm Until Apr 22.
In his inspired and transgressive hour of silent clowning, Dr Brown (Philip Burgers) repeatedly gestures to indicate there’s nothing up his sleeve. This will sound like a total wank, but he does have something up there: you.
Brown doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as nuke it and dance in the radioactive ashes. If you loathe audience participation, it’s even more reason to go.
Okay, so he may steal your handbag, or romp over your seat in his undies, but he also disinhibits the entire audience and transforms it into an integral part of the performance. Watching strangers overcome embarrassment and give themselves over to the quirky spell he weaves is a jubilant experience.
Just how he moves from underpowered, and frankly lame, mime to leader of the pack is a mystery, but his unpronounceable show is sure to be one of the underground hits at the festival.
BEMUSEMENT PARK – FRANK WOODLEY, 3 stars
Comedy Theatre, Tue-Sat 7:30, Sun 4:30, Until Apr 22.
Frank Woodley can’t help himself. He can barely get a joke out without his inner critic pouncing on it, so we get a running commentary of how badly his show is going. The man has so much panicked energy he makes a rabbit in headlights look like a meditation guru on Xanax.
On paper, he’s right to be worried. Poo jokes, penis gags and cross-species animal impressions, awkward physical humour and offbeat songs: it’s hardly ground-breaking material. Yet somehow this veteran rides the wave of comic failure that threatens to engulf the show, even if he’s soaked in the salt and brine of it.
Woodley could lean more on the songs. They’re his best suit. Bemusement Park seems less tightly scripted comedy than his usual solo fare. It’s an adrenaline-fuelled, and totally unpredictable, hour of bewildered clowning.
CLAUDIA O’DOHERTY – THE TELESCOPE 2.5 STARS
Town Hall, Tue-Sat 8:30pm, Sun 7:30pm, Until Apr 22,
In The Telescope, Claudia O’Doherty makes the transition from stand-up comedian to purveyor of “confronting, upsetting theatre”. As if there wasn’t enough of that around.
Fleeing from an evil stand-up cult, she embarks on a foray into faux avant-gardism that embraces a cursed telescope, a suicidal monk, a convict washerwoman, a tough New York City cop, a dreadlocked master-hacker, a weird sci-fi scene-change woman, and soul mates cruelly divided by time and space. There’s also a snow-machine. Benedict Andrews eat your heart out.
The show jangles the nerves: the clashing conceits, the strange and tasteless whimsy of it all. Ironically, the funniest moments are relatively low-key, observational stand-up comedy, delivered with oddball charm.
WATSON – SHAKESPEARE FIGHT CLUB, 3 stars
The Victoria Hotel, Thurs-Sun 11pm, Until April 21
This bit of late night Shakespearean silliness is a fun way to cap off an evening. Two hapless cheesebags (Tegan Higginbotham and Adam McKenzie) are stuck on an island, battling other couples to the death. It’s The Hunger Games meets Theatre of Blood, garnished with the odd, obsessively geeky Star Wars reference.
The Shakespeare death match combines fight scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Only part of the humour lies in massacring the verse, and you don’t have to know Shakespearean drama to appreciate the screwball comedy.
McKenzie performs with idiotic enthusiasm and a brilliant reflex for improvisation; Higginbotham’s quizzical deadpan can make the smallest lift of an eyebrow funny, and she has a damaged-goods charisma that reminds you of Christina Ricci.
The actors give themselves over to the ridiculousness of it all; the audience follows suit.
PLUS ONE Mike McLeish and Fiona Harris, 3 STARS
Trades Hall, Tue-Sat 8:15pm, Sun 7:15pm Until Apr 22. $20-$26.50
Plus One features Mike McLeish, the star of the Keating! The Musical, and his wife Fiona Harris. It’s a natty two-hander with a sitcom feel, about a group of uni mates in an early 90s band. Almost two decades on, they meet again at a flaky friend’s art installation. Suppressed romances resurface, tensions flare, and hilarious songs are sung.
Harris and McLeish excel at character-based comedy. Harris shifts from breezy New Ager to controlling two-faced bitch to contented (if harried) mum in the blink of an eye. McLeish roves between Irish lothario, pot-smoking man-boy and relaxed dad.
The sheer pace doesn’t give some of the humour room to breathe, and the immediately recognizable characters yearn for more expansive treatment.
Comic songs bookend the show, and McLeish’s supreme gift for musical comedy brings the house down. It’s worth the price of admission just to hear him getting in touch with his spiritual muff.
BOB DOWNE – 20 GOLDEN GREATS, 2.5 stars
Spiegeltent, Tues-Sat 7pm, Sun 6pm, until April 22.
Bob Downe is an enduring comic creation (and if not quite the golden great he imagines himself to be, then at least a golden pretty good). His hundred-watt smile and boofy blonde wig have been with us for almost three decades. The experience shows.
20 Golden Greats attracts an odd mix of gays and geriatrics, keen to watch polyester magic made from the vinyl of yesteryear. They’re unlikely to be disappointed by the songs, which range from an amusing reworking of Men at Work’s Down Under to a high-voltage cover of The Mamas and the Papas with special guest Pastel Vespa.
Regrettably, the stand-up is comic Polyfilla. Downe milks everything in sight and compulsively gives out free CDs in a quiz-night format that draws attention to the limitations of his shtick. His naughty greeting card poems are a stand-out amid repetitive, lacklustre fare.
Still, the best of the cabaret sparkles.
GONE OFF – ZOE COOMBS MARR 4 stars
Town Hall, 6pm, 5pm Sun, $10-17, Until April 22
It takes a special kind of performer to master long-form stand-up comedy where the humour is driven primarily by storytelling skill rather than punchlines. Zoe Coombs Marr is one of nature’s yarners, and her unpretentious charm, mastery of digression, and accumulation of vivid detail carry a striking hour of comedy with barely a cheap gag in sight.
Gone Off spins from a personal crisis that led to a quirky road trip across the outback. Marr tells us from the outset the tale is unedifying: she didn’t learn any major life lesson, or grow as a person, and that’s refreshing in itself.
We’re left to take the shaggy-dog episodes as they come, from talking cats in a Sydney share house to almost sleeping with a cop in Coober Pedy. Marr’s confident stage presence, clever and articulate voice, and authentic script combine to make unusually relaxing and involving narrative-based comedy.
WHO KILLED JOHN BEARINGTON III? 2.5 STARS
Word Warehouse, 11pm, $10, Until April 21
This late-night puppet show turns Jim Henson-inspired puppetry to a cheesy pastiche of hard-boiled American noir. When John Bearington III – a very rich, very loathed bear – is found murdered in a back alley, suspicion falls on his puppet neighbours. A detective (Dylan Cole) must interrogate them, but everyone seems to have a motive.
Cole’s spoof of a noir antihero is the chief attraction. His accent, timing and delivery are inspired. The puppeteering fails to match. It’s physically competent, but the voices need work.
The biggest let-down is the shockingly loose script. These artists have talent, but they need to secure the services of an experienced writer and dramaturge. The show remains diverting despite its flaws, and at 10 bucks, you get your money’s worth.
UNPACK THIS! by GEOFF PAINE 3.5 stars
Chapel Off Chapel, Wed-Sun 830pm, Until Apr 29, $30-25
Geoff Paine’s Unpack This! is clever, character-based comic theatre, and one of the better theatrical offerings at the Festival. It was written after the former Neighbours star headbutted his own neighbour, and attended an anger management course.
Six men reluctantly learn to calm the raging beast, led by Trevor (Syd Brisbane), a social worker with his own suppressed rage issues, and his assistant Lorraine (Michelle Nussey).
Paine and Ross Daniels play three characters each: Paine a violent bogan, a chauvinist Vietnamese man, and himself; Daniels a linguistically-challenged junkie, a nice old bloke, and a mild-mannered husband whose wife has cheated on him.
Finely observed acting captures the aura of futility around the exercise, and the character changes are swift and total. Paine and Daniels present a pathetically amusing parade of male dysfunction and excuse-mongering, thrust into a patronising framework that isn’t speaking their language. Their affectionate but disturbing caricatures of men in counselling put me in mind of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Highly recommended.
HANNAH GADSBY – MARY, CONTRARY, 3 STARS
National Gallery of Victoria, Sat 4:30, Until April 21.
The National Gallery of Victoria needs to get over itself. Before Hannah Gadsby enters, we get a long-winded, self-congratulatory intro from an arts bureaucrat with a severe fringe about how pleased the NGV is to support comedy shows. Honestly. Anything would be funny after that.
And Gadsby is funny. When God was handing out nerdliciousness, she got her foot stuck in a cloud at the front of the line. The academic and the stand-up comedian in her go head to head in this lightning lecture tour of the Virgin Mary in Christian devotional art.
Zigzagging between high- and low-mindedness, she schools the audience through styles from Romanesque to Mannerist art, finding quirks and quips everywhere: alarming portrayals of the circumcision of Jesus and comically disproportionate Madonnas among them.
But these are easy gets. The lecture is too hurried to make most of the arts criticism thoughtful and entertaining: precisely why she adores Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, or Grunewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim, I’d be interested to know.
DAVE O’DOHERTY IS LOOKING UP, 4.5 stars
Forum Theatre, Tues-Sat 7:30, Sun 6:30, Until Apr 22.
Comedy about how rubbish life is doesn’t come much better than Dave O’Doherty. I’m surprised the Irishman doesn’t come complete with a cute little raincloud over his head. The duck’s back of his gentle wit certainly charmed the crowd.
O’Doherty pens woe-begotten ditties belted out to the accompaniment of retro keyboard. Like his stand-up, they’re wonderfully relaxing. In an age where everyone seems to get outraged about everything all the time, there’s something very Zen about his pessimism and the droll, low-impact whinging not even he can seem to take seriously half the time.
Both songs and patter are equally entertaining, and he shifts between them with ease. You’ll need to be an absolutely first-rate heckler to get the better of him; his improvisation skills are super-swift. Not that there’ll be much heckling. O’Doherty commands attention from start to finish and it’s a pleasure to watch a comedian so comfortable onstage.
MATT OKINE – BEING BLACK & CHICKEN & SHIT, 2.5 stars
Town Hall, Tues-Sat 9:30, Sun 8:30, Until Apr 22.
Vulnerability is a tricky quality to negotiate in stand-up, but it’s an essential part of this young African Australian comic’s stage persona.
Matt Okine has a tale marked by tragedy and he weaves it into this layered, narrative-driven show to achieve an illuminating poignancy. That’s a harder, rarer and more ambitious thing to do than staple punchline humour, or mere whimsical anecdote.
Okine needs to hone those baseline skills though. He is an unconfident presence in part because his gags need more thought and preparation, with some too banal to be funny regardless of delivery, and others falling flat or hovering dubiously, requiring a sharper sense of incongruity to carry them.
He’s worth taking a punt on for the clever structure and strong finish, and the affecting growing-up story the show embraces, but he’d benefit from a larger pool of well-turned jokes and a seasoned director’s eye.