Friday, 2 April 2010

Having a Laugh? Melbourne International Comedy Festival Venues Reviewed

Every year in March-April, central Melbourne falls under the mirthful influence of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

It's a phenomenally successful arts event, with hundreds of shows spread across dozens of venues, from rooms holding a few dozen seats to large auditoriums that can seat thousands.

As a result of the numbers that attend, there's a lively atmosphere in the city centre over the three and a half weeks that the festival runs, especially in the area around the grand Melbourne Town Hall on Swanston Street.

The lights behind the clock face in the building's tower are changed to multiple colours, comedians are out in force leafleting on the street, and a bonhomous crowd of punters mills around the giant blackboard under the Town Hall's portico to examine the huge list of shows on each night.

I've been reviewing Comedy Festival shows for over a decade now, first for my own performing arts website Stage Left, then from 2006 in the pages of The Age, Melbourne's daily broadsheet newspaper.

There's no point in me outlining the best shows I've seen this year here, as you can read my reviews at the comedy section of The Age's website. So instead, I'm going to review the venues I've visited so far during this Comedy Festival, and add a bar tip for each:

1. Melbourne Town Hall
The Comedy Festival hub, this 1870 building exudes style and class, with multiple performance venues within its vast interior. Some are rooms usually used for events, such as the attractive top-floor Supper Room, with its skylight ceiling and hundreds of seats. Others are temporary spaces that convert well to a mid-sized venue of 100 or more seats, such as the Powder Room or Cloak Room.

Try as I might to avoid it, however, I usually end up seeing several shows (often good shows, I hasten to add!) in the tiny, airless, charm-challenged 45-seat Lunch Room in the bowels of the building. Presumably it really is a lunch room outside April; I wonder where the council gnomes eat their lunch while the festival is on?

My nearest favourite bar: Cabinet, 11 Rainbow Alley (off Little Collins Street).

[For more about the Town Hall's history, download my Melbourne Historical iPhone app]

2. The Athenaeum
Just around the corner from the Town Hall on Collins Street, this venerable (though much-modified) venue was established here just a few years after Melbourne was founded in 1835. As was once memorably pointed out by an onstage comedian (sorry, I've forgotten which one), its auditorium looks exactly like that in The Muppet Show.

The seats are tiny and the legroom makes Qantas look generous, but the place is brimming over with character. Although it's a large space, it was cleverly designed so that wherever you sit, you never feel far from the performer.

My nearest favourite bar: Tony Starr's Kitten Club, 267 Little Collins Street.

[For more about the Athenaeum's history, download my Melbourne Historical iPhone app] 

3. Victoria Hotel
Established in 1880 during the prosperous "Marvellous Melbourne" era, this hotel has long been a budget accommodation choice located in the centre of things. You don't get much sense of its age - its fittings are fairly modern and unremarkable - but it does house three venues at Comedy Festival time.

It'd be a handy place to stay if you're flying into Melbourne for the festival. If you're seeing a show in Vic's Bar, note the seats at the rear are sturdier and more comfortable than the ones at the front.

My nearest favourite bar: Gin Palace, 10 Russell Place (off Little Collins Street).

4. The Bosco

This temporary but atmospheric venue in City Square opposite the Town Hall is one of the vintage tents that have become so popular in Melbourne in recent years. It was constructed in the Netherlands in 1909, and used by a travelling circus for 50 years. Nowadays it's owned by a theatre impresario, and is regularly shipped around the world to appear at festivals.

This is a particularly great venue to see a musical comedy act in. Tip: the back row is the most comfortable, as it's the only one with back support (ie you can lean back onto the tent's timber wall).

My nearest favourite bar: Three Below, 3 City Square, Swanston Street.

5. Portland Hotel
A pub on the corner of Russell and Little Collins Streets, the Portland serves decent food and has the great virtue of brewing its own beer on site (try the Highwayman red ale). Its Comedy Festival venues vary in size, down to the diminutive 30-seat Locker Room.

The comedian in this approximately 3x7-metre venue can't bound on stage from behind the curtain, because there's nothing behind the curtain but solid wall. Good for a feeling of intimacy with the performer, and works best with the "nice guy" type of comedian who isn't too shouty.

My nearest favourite bar: Canary Club, 6 Melbourne Place (off Russell Street).

6. Forum Theatre
Once a grand 1920s cinema, this ornate building was clearly designed by a madman. The architecture is thoroughly engaging, an eclectic mix of Moroccan, Greek, Roman and whatever else he felt like chucking in at the time (not forgetting the "sky" ceiling with its little illuminated stars).

The downstairs venue used to be the cinema stalls, and is now a big space hosting live music acts outside Comedy Festival time; the upstairs is usually used as a cinema (having been the original cinema's dress circle). There are also some curious little additional venues, such as the Ladies' Lounge, which is crammed into a small but charming room off the mezzanine.

My nearest favourite bar: Misty, 3 Hosier Lane (off Flinders Street).

[For more about the Forum's history, download my Melbourne Historical iPhone app] 

7. Tuxedo Cat
The ultimate in a grunge comedy space, this temporary comedy club is located in a hastily repainted basement off Flinders Lane. You descend through a forbidding concrete corridor to get there, only to discover a hyper-cool venue with beanbags, a bar, and red velvet hanging off the walls.

You can't avoid getting hot and sweaty during a show in the neighbouring performance area, but a beer can assist with that; and the edgy, distressed feel of the venue provides a great down-to-earth vibe.

My nearest favourite bar: Robot, 12 Bligh Place (off Flinders Lane).

In the end, of course, the venue is far less important than the show you're seeing there. But you have to admit, Melbourne's Comedy Festival venues are interesting characters in their own right.