Now the Celtic Tiger is now little more than a lifeless pelt in front of some German banker’s chalet fireplace, Kilkenny’s much-loved Cat Laughs festival, which finished last night, has had to cut its cloth accordingly.
With no sponsor, fewer big-name international acts have been flown into the historic bar-strewn city; and those who do come are worked harder. More tellingly, audiences are notably down. Younger folk still glam up and step out for the holiday weekend, but much of the middle-aged mainstream audience – those with the most fearsome negative equity – seem to be staying at home to spend more time with their debt. Nothing’s a wash-out, but shows that would once have attracted huge crowds now attract merely decent ones.
There are exceptions, of course. Any line-up including Tommy Tiernan is a guaranteed crowd-puller, and in Sunday night’s late show he demonstrated the formidable talents that have made him the provocative darling of Irish comedy. Exploiting his ‘borderline personality disorder’, he rants with the conviction of a madman, but with his fiercely sharp mind, he puts up persuasive arguments that he’s not. Sometimes he looks inward at his aging, angry self, sometimes outwards at subjects like religion and contraception, where might you feel there’s nothing more to be said. But with Tiernan always finds something new, and has the wherewithal l to say it with impressive passion.
Earlier the gig, Alex Horne had received a rougher ride from the more chatty, drunken corners of the crowd, who hadn’t the attention span for his circuitous, low-key and self-deprecating delivery. When he gave them actual jokes – in the form of sharp, imaginative puns – or a bit of high-impact beatboxing, they paid attention, but subtleties were lost. Compere Fred Cooke’s big, daft, clownish persona was more to their liking, while Alun Cochrane sparked a chorus of mock-outrage with his tongue-in-cheek comments about Britain bailing out the Irish economy. Yet his sheer balls-out cockiness won them over, assuring their attention for his astute, world-weary grumbles despite their lower-energy delivery.
Horne had a much better run of things in his own show, The Horne Section, in which his brilliant wordplay was given the classy backing of a five-piece jazz band. It’s already been a hit in Edinburgh and London, and made a welcome new addition to the Kilkenny roster, with its mock-sophisticated aesthetic and underground clubby atmosphere. Not only did this show feature the most brilliantly quirky joke of the festival (‘that’s what “cabbage” sounds like,’ for the record, although it doesn’t mean anything on the page) and an inventively silly game of human battleships – but most importantly it gave guest comics Tommy Tiernan, David O’Doherty and Bo Burnham, the chance to meld their usual material with an improvised musical backing. Fine work, underlined with a wilfully cheesy Irish medley which managed to be simultaneously mocking yet still appealing to a ingrained sentimentality – ensuring everyone was sent out with a smile on their face. They certainly deserve a regular slot at the festival, if the budget can withstand such a big ensemble.
Burnham was the biggest overseas guest draw of the weekend, with his combination of petulance, theatricality, sublime joke-writing and flashes of musicality. At Sunday’s afternoon show, his reception seemed subdued as he raced through his set – but the size of the ovation he receive d at the end suggested the audience had simply been too intent on concentrating on his dense material to laugh uproariously, but were still loving every surprising turn.
And what a bill he was on: sharing the stage with Sarah Millican, Andrew Maxwell and quick-bantering compere Andrew Stanley. Millican’s irresistible ‘filthy aunt’ act delighted, flirting with the crude but with such loveably good-natured cheekiness the result is naughty but nice. Or ‘champion’, if you must. While Maxwell cemented his status as the Irving Walsh of comedy, entertainingly chronicling the exploits of tramps, drunks, junkies and various other lowlives with a certain admiration beneath his superficial condemnation.
Other highlights over the weekend included Tim Vine, showing he’s no shortage of puns behind the ears; Nick Helm, whose brutal aggression gave a real edge to a sleepy gig, before revealing he’s a lost teddy-bear really; and visiting Australian Wil Anderson, who is increasingly finding fire in his belly about such topics as personal responsibilities and homophobia. While the points he makes don’t seem hugely original, he does so with verve and style. The festival’s other Australian, Tom Gleeson, held his own without being a major revelation. He’s a nice guy, with an unaffected, affable style but not enough writing flair to break beyond likeable.
Elsewhere, Colin Murphy started his set a little blandly, with the now-hack topic of not being able to cope with the nudity of gym changing rooms, before demonstrating some bold edge on Irish politics, and some daft jinks to be had with the airblade-style hand dryers that showed much more flair and wit. While TV presenter Hector O'hEochagain’s lack of comedy credentials were exposed when the tried observational rants, but had the rabble-rousing skills to make him a more-than serviceable MC.
Not quite faring so well were home-grown comics Maeve Higgins, whose deliberately waffly delivery left the audience happily baffled rather than rocking with laughter; Dermot Whelan who propped up some tired, unoriginal insights with bursts of song and some well-received audience banter; and John Colleary whose culchie-heavy material proved predicable, even if he raised his game with political impressions.
On other bills, Roisin Conaty offered a sometimes entertaining but slightly disjointed set about her own insecurities; Carl Donnelly dished up ultimately pointless but well-told tales of his own childish folly; and ard-working Colm O’Regan (who I saw three times in the same night) a proved his compering chops, with witty interludes and energy-lifting banter lubricating every show.
Late at night, Dead Cat Bounce are one of the best covers bands you will ever see; entertaining the Festival Club stop-outs with genre-crossing crowd-pleasing mash-ups played with skill and spirit. In their comedy set, the songs are equally impressive – so much so that you can overlook the lack of inspiration in some of the lyrics (such as thinking rugby has barely disguised homoerotic undertones) because of the brilliance of the packaging.
So even with tight controls on the purse-strings, Cat Laughs retains its reputation as probably the most fun of all the world’s comedy festivals. Even in a slump, there’s nothing sub-prime about this.