Headliners 2016 | Melbourne comedy festival review by Steve Bennett

Headliners 2016

Melbourne comedy festival review by Steve Bennett

Most of the comedians at Headliners, the annual showcase of North American stand-up, complained about a quiet audience and the way their liberal sensibilities bristled at the slightest hint of anything politically incorrect.

But only Canada’s Mark Forward did anything about it, bullying and cajoling the half-empty room into a reaction, putting a supercharged passion into his performance as he angrily berated our reticence and our judginess – tempering the aggression with an impish glint that said: ‘I’m only teasing… but you know I’m right.’

It was a masterclass in working a room, making no attempt to disguise his disappointment in our reactions, but turning it around through grit and sweat. In material, he offers a mixture of the whimsical and the bad taste, sold hard by a dynamic, offbeat performance that forces the audience to stay on their toes.

So by the time he comes to his calling-card routine – a full-on melodrama, complete with interpretive dance, constructed around the apparently slight bit of observation comedy of spotting a rack of ‘fancy hats’ out-of-place in a grimy convenience store – he has the crowd eating out of his hand. You can see why he was the headliner among Headliners, invigorating the show in its closing section.

Intriguing for different reasons was Whitmer Thomas, an act with darkness at his heart - and when he reveals his back-story that involves being the victim of an attempted child abduction, you can understand why.

He comes across as a less manic Jim Carrey, his bizarre manner a sort of dadaist reaction to the bleakness in his past. He’s a comedian by compulsion, not necessarily because of innate funny bones, but as a social misfit finding a home with other misfits. ‘I ain’t right,’ he says in his Southern drawl at one point, somewhere between describing smalltown life and mocking Blink 182, the band everyone’s talking about.

Thomas didn’t quite connect with the semi-detached audience, and there’s a feeling that his persona has not yet fully set, as he jumps around ideas and styles, but you’d certainly peg him as one to watch.

Southern-ness also hallmarked the warm style of Georgia’s Sarah Tiana, who opened the evening, although her material was more one-note. After a gag-heavy opening volley she settled into an groove – rut, even – about how everyone kept on asking her why she wasn’t married at 38, from family members to dates. But the material was fairly ordinary, and she couldn’t make us care too deeply about her plight.

Ian Edwards also plundered the relationship mine, working up familiar concepts such as women faking orgasms while men fake emotions, as well as trying to justify ideas such as: ‘Just because a man lies to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.’ Yes, it’s ‘difference between men and women’ stuff for the most part, done solidly but not always that imaginatively, while his slow, deliberate delivery does little to energise the moribund atmosphere.

His take on racism is more interesting, but gags about the appearance of  people with Down’s Syndrome were designed to provoke, rather than being genuinely witty. If he’s to get past that liberal reluctance, he’ll need better gags than this.

• Headliners runs at Melbourne Town Hall at 9.45pm (8.45pm Sundays, no show Mondays) until April 17, with a changing line-up.

Review date: 31 Mar 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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