Friday, 29 March 2013

Laughs Ahoy: Melbourne Comedy Festival Log (Part 1)


For those who aren't familiar with it, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of Australia's biggest cultural events.

Every April it takes over the central city, inhabiting dozens of performance spaces within the grand Melbourne Town Hall along with various theatres, pubs, bars and pop-up performance spaces.

I'm reviewing again for The Age this year - you can read my and my colleagues' reviews here - but I'll also be covering the festival more informally here on my blog.

The high plains of Sahara

So let's begin at Sahara, a restaurant and bar hidden high above the street, accessible only by a steep set of steps through a narrow doorway at ground level.

Sahara must be one of the older examples of Melbourne's famous "hidden" bars, more commonly found down alleyways. I used to meet up with a small freelance writers' support group here, years ago. In fact, I'd wager I haven't set foot in the place for at least five years.

In the old Sahara, the eating was pretty dull though the decor was cool. Now it's been taken over by people who really know how to prepare food, in this case with a North African flavour to match the venue's name.

I have an excellent Egyptian salad, complete with dukkah-coated egg, and my friend Julia gives a big thumbs-up to her dessert, a combination of Turkish delight and rosewater ice-cream.

Into the mouse hole

Then it's up more stairs to the second floor, which has only recently been turned into an impressive Arabian-themed bar with the geometric patterns of traditional art traced through the lampshades.

Aptly, given the great Middle Eastern history of mathematics ("algebra'' arrived in English from Arabic as a result), the show tonight is about computers. British comedian Dan Willis presents Control-Alt-Delete, drawing on his past life as a programmer.

He's a genial, likeable performer, raising laughs as he ranges across IT topics such as his first computer; the ridiculously good looking stars cast as programmers by Hollywood; the evolution of rude words created with keyboard symbols; Y2K and its inevitable return; and the classic film Weird Science.

Willis delves into computer history and programming from the 1970s that's obscure even to me, and I was a fairly nerdy teenager. Occasionally British references have to be explained, which slows the pace.

It's entertaining material, but I have the feeling the show will really fire when Willis finds his true audience. There's only one IT guy in the crowd tonight who he can bounce questions to. And, for some reason, there's a very non-techie 85 year old lady in the front row, who doesn't seem to be related to the performer and has made the long haul up the stairs specifically for this show. Go figure.

[Find details and buy tix for Control-Alt-Delete here]

Last-minute tuxedo

From here I bid farewell to Julia and walk westward toward Wills St, one of those obscure little side streets that run between La Trobe Street and the Queen Victoria Market.

The day before, rumours had swept Twitter that the Tuxedo Cat, a moveable venue which pops up for the festival, wouldn't be opening this year due to technical hitches.

But matters have been satisfactorily adjusted, it seems, as I arrive at the venue and walk into the vast ground floor of an otherwise vacant industrial building, into which are set a bar, tables, attractively weird decor (see above photo) and a ticket desk.

Narrelle joins me at the last minute for our 9.45pm show, Abigoliah Schamaun - Girl Going to Hell. But she needn't have rushed, as the show is running late, as are most other shows tonight. We sit around a picnic table with a couple of other critics, sipping drinks and idly examining the flyers scattered across the table.

From hell

Then suddenly we're on, up bare stairs through stripped-back rooms to the performance space, set with a small stage and the most uncomfortable chairs I've experienced in a long career of reviewing shows from uncomfortable chairs.

Luckily the American comedian has no trouble in drawing our attention away from the seating. It quickly becomes clear that Schamaun is at the far, far end of the "bad girl" spectrum of female comedians.

With her severe partly buzz-cut hair, she already catches the eye. Her material, though, is what marks her out as something unusual even among stand-up comedians.

With energy and exuberance and no discernible trace of modesty, she shares intimate details of her frankly interesting sex life, tattoos, awkward bodily functions and death. Other comedians talk about this stuff, of course, but she does it with an air of honesty and enthusiasm that's, er, infectious.

And then she sticks a needle right through her hand. And eats broken glass. Really. You couldn't make this stuff up.

[Find details and buy tix for Abigoliah Schamaun - Girl Going to Hell here]

So that was my first night of my 17th tryst with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

You can continue to Part 2 of my Comedy Festival log by clicking here; and to Part 3 by clicking here.