There’s been talk this week of the ‘festival dad’ – the sort of middle-aged, middle-class parent that Radio One wants to lose in a bid to regain its youth credibility. As if the boorish Chris Moyles would be a pin-up boy of anyone attending Latitude, the spiritual home of this demographic.
Never mind the clientele, though, the festival parent is certainly the stalwart of the comedy tent. Over the weekend, comics who spoke about their offspring included Shappi Khorsandi, Phill Jupitus, Mark Watson, Robin Ince, Katherine Ryan, Andrew Maxwell and Tony Law, who trumped the lot of them when his two adorable toddlers appeared on stage two-thirds of the way through his Sunday afternoon set, apparently by accident. Until that point, his strange, deliberately misplaced attempts at ‘banter’ had proved decidedly hit and miss, though his elaborate deconstruction of a old-school gag about elephants wandering into a bar is charmingly literal.
Conventional wisdom dictates no one else is interested in your kids, and routines such as Ryan’s description of an accident at an arty-farty class, or some of Khorsandi’s discussions of her child’s behaviour felt more like conversation than comedy, although the Iranian did pull some punchlines from the less-focussed set-ups.
On the face of it, Jupitus had a long, potentially clichéd, routine about his teenage daughter having sex under his roof, that was again long on exposition building up to the payoff. But he has an impressive control of the audience – that can easily be 2,000 in Latitude’s mammoth Comedy Arena – and enough piquant turns of thought to keep things interesting.
Of the other acts mentioned, their children were mentioned more in context of a wider argument or in substantiating their already clearly-defined personae, rather than being the nub of their material – but it’s notable just how many comics here discuss parenthood. Talk about playing to your demographic…
Highlights of the weekend shunned the topic altogether, though, to produce something more original. Probably the most talked-about act on the comedy stage was Terry Alderton, whose manic physical vocal energy, and inspired use of his schizophrenic inner monologue proved an invigorating blast. With vocal trickery, blasts of music, the occasional impression and convulsing delivery, it’s like watching a ridiculously fast-cut montage of Britain’s Got Talent, your eyes held open Clockwork Orange-style. There was a small lull in this bonkers powerhouse, but then Alderton got on his back and produced another memorable moment.
Headlining on Friday, Tim Minchin – as expected – proved another highlight, storming with near-identical set to the one he performed at London’s Udderbelly last weekend. Maybe I chose my musical acts unwisely, but the song that stuck in my head over the whole festival was nothing from Elbow, Rufus Wainwright or the dull Lana Del Rey – but Minchin’s jaunty Woody Allen Jesus.
Not that he was the only virtuoso musician with a grand piano and a sharp, playful and wry sense of humour at Latitude. Chilly Gonzalez, playing the Film and Music Arena, mixed some magnificent showboating, nerd-appeal jokes and nimble and knowing songs to great effect. He could be Bo Burnham’s dad.
More excellent musical shenanigans from Rich Hall’s Hoedown which attracted a huge, spiralling queue outside the intimate Cabaret Arena – every member of which was rewarded for their patience with an rambunctious hour of country and western songs, both planned and improvised. Or maybe that should be country and eastern in the case of the silly footstomper If The Mosque Is Rockin. The improv is the sort of thing Hall’s been doing since his Otis Lee Crenshaw days, but getting stronger by the year – while a new adlibbed number about celebrity chefs, for which the gravel-voiced American was joined by the sultry Kirsty Newton, was particularly strong. The session clearly had an effect on some in the crowd; a jokey exhortation for a man in the front row to propose to his girlfriend actually paid off – and the question was popped.
Only Nick Helm rocked harder, with the aid of his backing group The Helmettes. Blighted by a few technical problems, it’s hard to see where the chaos he instigates and the chaos he has to deal with meet. His was a gloriously sloppy performance, combining gruff aggression and catchily repetitive glam rock tracks make. He probably divided the room more than most, but those who didn’t enjoy his intimidating loneliness are wrong. Meanwhile, those watching on the screens outside the tent seemed to have more views of Helm’s lunchbox than his angry face, thanks to a crotch-obsessed cameraman and Helm’s tight red jumpsuit.
Elsewhere Frisky and Mannish mashed up styles in their usual manner, with versions of songs ‘in the way they were supposed to be sung’. It seems to work best when they up the tempo of the original – a grimecore Carpenters number was a particular hit – but on the downside, their obsession with the vacuous OK-yahoos of Made In Chelsea seemed to be low-hanging fruit.
4 Screws Loose also both mocked the OMG! Sloanes and had a strong musical element to their full-length show. They are sometimes cliched in their targets – spoofing boy bands for example – but their slick commitment and pacy, powerful performance ensures every sketch is enjoyable. It’s a quirk of the programming and timing of Latitude that such polished professionalism was immediately followed by Sara Pascoe previewing her Edinburgh show, apologising for the incomplete nature of her presentation, explaining an early mistake and saying it will all be sorted by the Fringe. Quite a few people left the tent on that handover…
Sticking with sketch, the Three Englishmen mixed longer, slightly eccentric routines such as the spoof children’s adventurers Time Fiddlers with sharper one-liners… though they couldn’t quite write anything as funny as them corpsing mid-scene. Meanwhile Colin Hoult presented a menagerie of twisted weirdo in his dark Friday the 13th presentation of his Real Horror Show. Perhaps more weird than laugh-out-loud funny, the man who becomes possessed while wearing a penguin mask was nonetheless one of the silliest headgear-related things at the festival. And that’s saying something.
More highlights back at the Comedy Arena included Russell Kane, whose acutely class-conscious comments found a willing audience in the proudly middle-class Latitude. Of course his references are often hackneyed, but he tries to own that criticism by making it himself. ‘I’ll say it for you, you cynical men over 40 who want to destroy with their pen,’ he says pointedly. He’s very self-aware is this ‘third Russell with the Jedward hair’ – almost painfully so – but that’s what makes his material about his emotional weaknesses so compelling and raw.
David O’Doherty put more of himself into his performance than he usually does, too, and found hilarity in the dark places where he found himself following a romantic split last year. Although his Beefs 2012 song is now a guaranteed highlight, his stand-up away from the cheap keyboard is ever-growing in confidence, backed with impressive writing. His evocative yet surreal description of a Pound Shop, for example, is a delight.
Mark Watson evoked last year’s performance by again wandering into the crowd, sidelining material for the drive to create a unique experience to be talked-about. Being heckled by a 13-year-old Radio 4 listener and a six-year old who asked him: ‘What do you think you are talking about?’ are occupational hazards here, but he had typically easy-going fun with the interruptions to create a mini ‘event’ of his own.
Absent from the line-up was the much-anticipated Greg Davies, who cried off because of flu. Marcus Brigstocke bravely stepped into the breach even though he’s a very different style of comedian. His experience was evident as, despite being rusty from his recent absence from stand-up, he negotiated his way through his back catalogue, deftly switching track when his more bluntly political material fell on stony ground and instead finding a new approach through more accessible routes of general consumer disgruntlement with, for example, the rail system.
It was Brigstocke’s second appearance in the day, having previously co-hosted the Early Edition with the Emperor of Latitude, Robin Ince. The 75-minute session of topical comedy largely involved taking the piss out of The Mail on Sunday, which might be an easy target but provided an almost endless supply of material. Guests Luke Wright, Nadia Kamil and John-Luke Roberts were not, perhaps, on top of their briefs at 11am on festival Sunday morning, but occasionally found humour in the day’s news.
Andrew Maxwell was political in his outlook, too, though less blatantly so, using the age-old ‘Where are you from?’ questions to prod at the identities of Cockneys, rednecks and Muslims – among others – with infectious good humour and a few home truths, but delivered with a laugh.
Elsewhere, Phil Nichol naturally went down a treat with Only Gay Eskimo, though other old components of his routine such as confronting aggressive hooligans with his ‘jazz ballet’ are becoming over-familiar for those of us who see him often. Holly Walsh is technically strong with her writing, though doesn’t have a distinctively strong enough angle or persona for tales of breaking her arm or moving in with her boyfriend to stand out in a weekend packed with comedy. Josh Widdicombe perhaps has a similar problem, with his rising inflection of incredulity a very over-used tool in his armoury – but has some great lines and images in his accessible, observational set. Chris Cox’s ‘mind-reading’, however, seemed a poor fit for the Comedy Arena, so even if the trickery was deftly done, it didn’t wholly engage.
The tent was opened on Friday by some of the finalists in this year’s Chortle Student Comedy Award. We’ll reserve review until the final at the Edinburgh Fringe, but all did justice to their position in the final eight in what would easily have been the biggest gig in their short careers to date.
Not that this multi-art festival confines comedy to its own arena in this multi-arts festival. Random encounters included shows staged in a tiny shed ‘the Monster Comedy Shack’; Chris Green’s Tina C leading a line-dance in the middle of a wood, and Andrew O’Neill’s Victorian-influenced steampunk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing performing a credit-crunch two man version of their full show in a tiny tent, hopefully winning a few more fans for their witty and eccentric songs such as Zombie Albert. And that’s without counting the programmed contributions in the literary or poetry arenas.
Latitude is a whole Edinburgh compressed into one weekend – an overpowering fix for those who like to mainline their art.