Monday, 30 March 2015

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2015 (Part 1)

Trades Hall lit up for the 2015 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of Australia's biggest cultural events.

Every autumn it takes over the central city, inhabiting numerous performance spaces within the grand Melbourne Town Hall along with various theatres, pubs, bars and other venues.

I'm reviewing for The Age newspaper again this year, but Narrelle Harris and I will also cover several more festival shows here on my blog.

Here are our first six reviews.

1. Judith Lucy - Ask No Questions of the Moth
Reviewed by Tim Richards

It’s always a slightly surreal experience seeing a standup comedy show featuring a long-established comedian who’s recently appeared on the telly.

In this situation, the huge audience is inevitably composed of diehard fans, so there’s a guaranteed vibe regardless of the material.

This is the case at Judith Lucy’s new show, Ask No Questions of the Moth. There’s something delightful about seeing a comedian effortlessly work a crowd of hundreds, which is what Lucy does as she talks about her dire 2014, leaving the stage at the start to ask punters about their past year.

Incidentally, this is not a show you want to arrive late to, with the comedian likely to quiz you up close in the aisles as you search for your seat.

Her laconic couldn’t-give-a-shit delivery is as effective as ever, though the material is a bit formless: hipster beards, politics and social media get a workout, though there’s no particularly piercing insights.

The show more heavily leans upon the comedian’s experiences in filming her recent ABC TV series Judith Lucy is All Woman, with Lucy relating amusing behind the scenes stories.

If you take this as a kind of "DVD extras" follow-up to the program, it works; and it’s likely a lot of the audience is here because they enjoyed the TV show. We do learn more about her bad year by the end of the show, but it’s not as focal an element as you expect.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Harley Breen - Just a Fully Naked Encounter
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

It’s awkward to take a relative to a Comedy Festival show and realise at the last minute we’re going to be seeing full frontal male nudity together from the second row.

By the time I realise the title should have been a warning it’s too late, and anyway, my niece is a grown woman and we’re both sort of looking forward to it by now.

Breen has spent the hour talking with hilarious openness about aspects of sex, sexuality, body confidence and shaved genitalia, and has confessed he’ll probably get naked eventually as a technique for addressing his body confidence issues.

Along the way he talks about being high and being drunk. They’re topics I normally find terribly dull in comedy, but his easy charm and frankness makes them work. He also talks hilariously about his bad parenting.

He has built up such a rapport with the audience, and we’re so ready to be encouraging when he gets his knob out, that the finale is...well, a bit disappointing. The niece and I both feel a bit cheated. Still, the other 55 minutes is good, solid comedy.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Katherine Ryan - Glam Role Model
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Comedian Katherine Ryan is a Canadian living in London. She’s a little outraged to discover her five year old daughter has turned out English, as though it’s a kind of stealth manoeuvre.

Like Breen before her, Ryan has lots of material on bad parenting, and she skates along the comic edge of transgression, particularly with her description of her "best day ever" as a single mum.

When she isn’t talking about her own relationships, Ryan does a fine line in acid commentary on celebrity in general, and certain celebrities in particular. That material works best when you know who she’s talking about, but she’s so good at bringing celebs (and their stereotypes) to life that it works even when you don’t.

She talks about sex tapes, dating younger men and the trials of being a (engage London chav accent here) "glamour model". Sharp and occasionally uncomfortable in the best comic tradition, Ryan is a hoot.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

4. Damian Callinan - The Lost WWI Diary
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Being a theatre fan, I love a good bit of comedy theatre. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, however; in addition to the usual comic skills, the performer needs theatrical skills involving acting, costumes, props and tricky stage directions.

Damian Callinan is equal to the task in this show, involving a World War One story woven from an old photo of forgotten family family members in uniform. Callinan fleshes out their imagined story beautifully, telling it through the voice of an Irish-Australian soldier sent to Gallipoli and other fronts.

It sounds a serious tale - and it is - but the comedian skilfully tells the war story in a naturally comic manner which has us laughing at the mishaps and personalities of men sent to an insane war.

What makes it work is the irreverent style of his character, which perfectly matches the popular image of the knockabout larrikin digger. The result is a funny show which is also a moving tribute to those who fell a century ago.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

5. Liam Ryan - Karaoke in the Sun
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Despite the title, there is no singing in Liam Ryan’s show. Instead, it was sparked by his initially cynical response to a guy in Mexico singing his heart out in daylight with the enthusiastic support of a friend.

This leads to tales of dying dreams, public embarrassment, odd family traits, social anxiety and general life awkwardness - and how he learned to overcome them all.

Ryan is warm, personable and given to strange but perfect analogies. He also stops from time to time to read bite-sized stories with musical accompaniment, which sounds a bit naff but is in fact ... well, naff, but also funny. It’s an engaging hour that ends on a note of optimism.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

6. Gillian Cosgriff – Whelmed
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Who knew there was a perfectly formed music room in a building at the back of Trades Hall? It’s in this small, wood-panelled space that Gillian Cosgriff crams a keyboard onto a compact stage and shares her obsessions to the backing of original songs.

Admitting to feeling “whelmed” much of the time (after explaining what the word means, and its derivation), she reels out a number of obsessions and distractions that threaten to stop her realising her potential.

Mind you, these obsessions (such as memorising all the world’s capital cities) come in handy for creating an amusing show, especially with musical accompaniment.

Full of bounce and energy, and just a touch manic, Cosgriff draws the audience into her enthusiasms and foibles. It’s an entertaining act with a bonus - a sighting of one of the ugliest accessories on the planet. Attend, and discover just what it is…

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Ellis Island: Gateway to New York

Thanks to NYC & Co, when visiting New York in September Narrelle Harris and I were able to take the popular cruise to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Lady Liberty was a sight for sore eyes, it's true...

... but we decided not to disembark at Liberty Island. The statue looked pretty good from on deck, but what we were really interested in visiting was the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island:

From 1892 to 1954, this island was the major clearance station for immigrants entering the United States, processing some 12 million arrivals in that period.

Despite its significant role in the nation's growth, after its closure the island and its facilities were left to slowly deteriorate. Finally, decades later in 1990, the building was restored and opened as a museum.

It's a great place to visit, with interesting exhibits dotted through its many rooms and its lofty Great Hall:

One of the more unusual exhibits which fascinated me was a series of glass cases containing decayed fixtures and fittings, found in the building prior to restoration:

Ellis Island is a great New York City experience. Without this place, the city would never have become the diverse hotch-potch of cultures it is today; a thought worth remembering in our sometimes paranoid modern times.

Disclosure: I visited Ellis Island with the assistance of NYC & Co. Check out its official guide to New York City's attractions at

Friday, 20 March 2015

Chin Chin! Timeline Cocktails at the Raffles Hotel, Singapore

I'm in Singapore this week, currently being hosted by the luxurious Raffles Hotel. Unsurprisingly I've drunk a couple of Singapore Slings, the famous cocktail which was invented here a century ago:

As it's synonymous with the hotel and its glamorous colonial-era image, the Raffles still serves vast numbers of this cocktail each day. 

The most entertaining place to drink it is in the hotel's Long Bar, where patrons are encouraged to throw peanut shells on the floor after consumption (note the mechanically-operated ceiling fans):

The Sling is not the only drink with echoes of the past on the drinks menu, however. Recently (perhaps desperate to make drinks other than the Sling) the hotel's bar staff created the Timeline menu, a selection of cocktails connected to events in the Raffles' past.

Coordinating the creative process was this man, head bartender Aron Manzanillo from the Philippines:

Manzanillo and his team drew on a variety of sources for inspiration for the 12 cocktails, representing each decade between the 1880s and the 1990s. 

One obvious reference was the infamous occasion in 1902 on which a tiger was discovered beneath the raised floor of the billiard room (not the billiard table, as has often been reported). That event gave rise to The Stray Tiger (with white rum, Cointreau, vermouth, lime juice, absinthe and lemongrass foam).

At a table in the Long Bar, he talked me through a representative sample comprising three other cocktails from the Timeline list:

The first of my samples was the British India, representing the 1880s when the Raffles was founded. A tribute to the classic gin and tonic much enjoyed by the British officer class, it includes gin, tonic, a herbal shrub and lime:

I could definitely detect the underlying G&T in this, though with a strong herbal flavour overlaid.

Second was the Rose & Rickey, based on the popular gin rickey which appeared in the hotel's cocktail repertoire in the 1930s. This one contains Hendricks gin, calamansi juice (a type of citrus), gomme (a syrup), and carbonated rosewater:

This was a clean, refreshing drink, with a hint of the cucumber slices floating in it.

The final test cocktail was the Pretty Polly (Cointreau, rosé wine, grapefruit juice), celebrating the 1960s movie of that name which was filmed at the Raffles:

The film, about a young British woman travelling in Singapore, was based on a story by Noel Coward, a regular guest at the Raffles. 

The cocktail I found fresh and light, a little sweet but not excessively so. Hopefully just like Polly.

There are nine other cocktails in the Timeline list, so if you've had enough Singapore Slings in your life you may find these of interest.

Be aware, however, that history in alcoholic form doesn't come cheap. Each of these cocktails is S$27, which rises to about S$31.50 once tax and a service charge are added.

The peanuts, however, are complimentary.

Disclosure: On this trip I'm travelling courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board and the Raffles Hotel.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Zapiekanka: The National Snack of Poland

The zapiekanka is one of the few popular relics of Poland's communist era.

It's all the things that quick and easy snack food should be - filling, tasty and a bit messy.

Basically it's a long flat toasted roll, hand-prepared with a topping of cheese and fresh mushrooms laced with tomato sauce.

Some zapiekanki (the plural form) are huge, they're always cheap (about $1.50), and they're ideal for warming you up quickly on a chilly day.

You can buy the zapiekanka all over Poland, usually from informal street stalls.

On top of the basics, any number of other ingredients may be added: garlic sauce, ham, salami, corn, etc. 

Some zapiekanki stalls go a bit crazy in the variety they offer - check out the bewildering array of options on the menu below :

As with all fast food, quality varies; once you find a place that serves a great zapiekanka, however, you'll never go anywhere else.

The best zapiekanka I've ever eaten came from a small take-away window at an old-fashioned cafeteria near the corner of the market square in Toruń, a city of Gothic architecture in the north.

If you're visiting Toruń, look for its window on the corner of ul Różana and ul Ducha Świętego.

Another top zapiekanka outlet I encountered was housed within this circular building in Plac Nowy, Kazimierz, a neighbourhood in beautiful southern Kraków:

I'm due to go back to Poland soon, for the first time in three years. I hope those zapiekanka stalls have survived. If so, smacznego!*

(*Bon appetit!)

Friday, 6 March 2015

Melbourne on a White Night 2015 (Part 2)

In the last post, I described our movements south of the Yarra River at White Night in Melbourne, held from 7pm to 7am on 21-22 February. Now we move north...

Crossing the river and entering Federation Square, we were surprised to find that it was relatively easy to move through the crowds. There were plenty of people around, but not the slightly terrifying crush that had existed in the area back in 2013.

Walking along Flinders Street, we entered Wonderland, the zone of art projections which has been part of Melbourne's White Night since the beginning.

This year, aptly, they paid tribute to the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland:

Walking up Russell Street, we dropped into the bar at the Hyatt Hotel for a drink in its blessedly cool air-conditioning. It was still very warm and humid out there in the night.

Then onto an 86 tram along Bourke Street to the Royal Exhibition Building, the farthest-flung outpost of this year's White Night.

Australia's first cultural addition to the World Heritage register was looking great at about 1am, its entire facade illuminated by 4 Elements. This animated artwork featured Earth, Wind, Water and Fire, each personified and dancing their way across the building:

Here's a video clip I shot of the east end of the facade, as Earth was succeeded by Water:

Walking along Victoria Street, we came across another animated projection playing across a huge piece of black-and-white street art:

We thought about queuing up for more Alice-themed art within the State Library of Victoria, but it was past 2am at this stage and the flesh was weak. Instead, I took a shot of the library's facade:

On the way home to our apartment, we walked down Caledonian Lane and discovered this smaller-scale production, Draw/Delay. It was a collaborative piece by musician Mick Dick and artist Kellie O'Dempsey, each responding to the other as they created their visual/audible artwork:

It was the perfect way to end the event, focused and contemplative.

So that was it for us, heading back to bed about 3am. What a great night of art and community, and so very Melbourne.