Monday, 26 July 2010

Hobart Funny Ha-ha

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the west coast of Tasmania - I was waylaid by the annual Hobart Comedy Festival.

Well, not exactly waylaid. I'd written a preview article on the festival for Melbourne daily newspaper The Age, and was dropping in on its opening night on my way to Queenstown to try out the West Coast Wilderness Railway.

I was in the Tassie capital by 11am, so to kill time I walked around the dockside to Salamanca Place, and had a late breakfast at Plum.

I'm unreasonably biased toward this cafe in Salamanca Square because it shares PG Wodehouse's nickname, and my reverence for the creator of Jeeves and Wooster knows no bounds.

The fact that it also turns out an exceptionally good omelette with tomato, basil and goat's cheese folded neatly over a slice of impeccable toast is another reason I like the place.

Then I had a late lunch of beef ragout lasagne with festival director Craig Wellington (who I've known since he was a wee lad in 1985). I know what you're thinking: "Does he imagine that a trip to Hobart revolves around its food and drink?" Well, yes. Yes I do.

But there are other pleasures in life that make life worth living, and one of them is laughter. About 7pm I walked from my flash lodgings at the Henry Jones Art Hotel through the icy night air to the 1911 Hobart City Hall, main venue of the Hobart Comedy Festival.

The Hobart City Hall, by the way, shouldn't be confused with the Hobart Town Hall, which is a completely different building. The City Hall is actually a cavernous entertainment venue which often hosts live concerts.

I can't tell you much about the interior, as the Comedy Fest had done a brilliant job of obscuring it with cloth hanging both horizontally and vertically, creating the impression of a vast tent.

A new, lower stage had been set up in front of the venue's original stage, and a brilliant hanging star field set behind that. Around and back from the edge of the stage were tables and chars in a cabaret setting.

The Festival has been structured so that there are three nightly shows with multiple comedians each night. The first one on Saturday, Back to Base, featured Tassie-born comedians Hannah Gadsby and Justin Heazlewood aka The Bedroom Philosopher. This was followed by Planet Earth Presents with Montreal-based DeAnne Smith and Eleanor Tiernan from Ireland.

Then a mixed medley of comedians were showcased in the Festival Club, but at that point I needed to slip away and get some sleep in reparation for the west coast trek in a minibus the following day.

Some observations... it was great to see so many female comedians on the bill, when they're usually far outnumbered by males in such events; both Gadsby and the Bedroom Philosopher expertly skewered their respective home towns in northern Tassie (Smithton for Gadsby, Burnie for Heazlewood); an Irish accent makes anything a pleasure to listen to, even if it's quite rude; and you can never go wrong in knocking bogans (the first show's MC praised Tasmania for its potent-strength bogans, which outshone even those of his native Perth).

Most of all though, it was surprising how much material was about lesbian sex, a result of both Gadsby and Smith addressing the topic with enthusiasm. The mainstream audience may have been a little startled at first, but was then filled with the spirit of adventure and laughed copiously.

Which seems faintly remarkable, given that it hasn't been that many years since homosexuality was illegal in Tasmania. Or maybe not that remarkable, given the audience's good-natured response.

It's a great little festival for a great little city. Oh, and in case you were wondering... for dinner I had a Tasmanian venison pie and a Boag's beer from the festival bar, served with a cheeky little salsa (the pie, not the beer).

It was very good.

The Hobart Comedy Festival runs from 23 July to 1 August 2010; make bookings via www.hobartcomfest.com. Flight and accommodation packages are available via lumina.discovertasmania.com.

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Tourism Tasmania (though I paid for all those tasty meals).