Return of the Mach

Marissa Burgess visits the Welsh festival

Machynlleth is a sleepy, albeit somewhat hippyish Welsh market town nestling between hills, right next to the Centre for Alternative Technology.

But this bank holiday weekend if you happened to be walking down the high street passing the local chippies, gift shops and pubs you might realise you've just passed Josie Long listening to music on her headphones, or Abandoman drifting by with some friends or you might say 'hi' to Jarred Christmas. It's all quite dreamlike and magical.

The ancient capital of Wales may draw in its fair share of tourists but a whole comedy festival based around the out-of-the-way town would still seem an ambitious project. But now in its third year there's no doubt that Machynlleth comedy festival works. It was set up by the South Wales based stand-up Henry Widdicombe and promoter Emma Butler.

Looking around at other festivals Widdicombe wanted to make something unique: ‘I wanted to create somewhere that was for comedy lovers, where the emphasis was on looking after artists and the team that were putting it on.

‘We felt we wanted to do it in a special place that was much smaller. All the other festivals were coming up in cities and we wanted to do something that was different from anything else.

‘I covered the whole of Powys for a job so I knew the area well. I'd been eyeing up the venue spaces in the town and thinking this could really work here. It's a town of 2,000 people and the venue spaces they've got is incredible. Perfect for it really.’

This year has attracted established acts such as veteran Arthur Smith, Stewart Lee, Bridget Christie and Paul Foot. What's particularly noticeable about the line-up is that most of the acts, whether established or new, are at the comedy fringes, comics unafraid to push boundaries in their work; whether it's Christie's highbrow surrealism or David Trent and his bombastic use of PowerPoint.

As Widdicombe explains that was very much the point. ‘Comedy's a very competitive industry and I'm not that competitive. I wanted to create somewhere where for one weekend in the year it was about expressing yourself and doing what you think is funny. Anything that piques our interest and taking comedy in a new direction we'd love to have on.’

Following my own brief appearance in the festival as Arthur Smith's on-stage nude in the Tabernacl, a peek at the festival showcase on the Friday night was a taster line up of mainly accomplished but innovative acts alongside some newer names, from Josie Long to Pat Burtscher, , Pappy's to James Acaster.

Elsewhere it was mainly solo shows and as the festival is in May they were a mixture of those that started at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and those heading up to Scotland this August. Long swansonged her magnificent The Future Is Another Place and there was an outing for Christie's wonderfully offbeat Housewife Surrealist also from Edinburgh last year. Stewart Lee was there on his tour of the as beautiful- as-it-is-playful Carpet Remnant World, and the likes of Isy Suttie, Welsh speaker Elis James and Josh Widdicombe were trying out new material.

Aside from a shed and the man performing on a boat, there are four main venues dotted about the small town. Y Plas a council-owned Georgian mansion with event spaces, Y Tabernacl the chapel within the Museum Of Modern Art (there can't be that many towns of this size that have one of those), the Owain Glyndwr centre and The Bowling Club. In addition, to create the feeling of a hub to the festival is the big top housing, amongst other things, family friendly cabaret from the Mary Bijou company. Arthur Smith was also on hand to report from the festival for Radio 4 Extra.

As far as the future's concerned Widdicombe notes: ‘We want to keep it special so it's not about bolting on large spaces, it'll be about filling small rooms. It was built on a love of going to see comedy, we don't film any of it, the whole thing is about the experience of being in a room and enjoying live comedy. So yeah, it'll be finding more little nooks and crannies around town to put comedy in.’

Judging by the amount of people in the crowds - on the Friday Y Plas with a capacity that must have been a few hundred was heaving - and the length of the sold out board by the Saturday, Widdicombe best start looking hard. Machynlleth Comedy Festival is here to stay.

Published: 8 May 2012

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