Comedy at the Wychwood festival

Review by Steve Bennett

Stand-up is an increasingly intrinsic part of outdoor festivals… even though how to stage it effectively remains a challenge. Canvas provides no insulation against the noise of a 100kW sound system just a field away, while booze-soaked fans – who probably never came for the comedy anyway – are never going to be the most attentive.

At Wychwood, on the Cheltenham Racecourse, the comedy almost seems like an afterthought. While most festival programme comedy during the day, here’s it’s shoved on in the new bands tent last thing at night.

On Sunday, especially, this seems like a very distant outpost as the festival architecture is disassembled around it. After all the stalls have closed, this is a last refuge for those seeking yet more drink or shelter from the light rain – so the audience includes chatty barflys, over-tired children blowing massive bubbles, and wobbly-on-their feet women of a certain age who need little encouragement to moon the stage or start their own conversations with the comedians.

The better news is that the curfew kicks in halfway through the four-acts-and-a-compere show, so later comics don’t have to compete with the sizeable drumming crew, The Dhol Foundation, closing the main stage.

The festival itself has a folky vibe, although with the amount of children’s activities and craft parade can feel like a school fete whose organiser got ideas above their station, and started madly booking the likes of Dodgy and Hawkwind.

Local boy Nick Page compered the comedy, and while he seems to have some outlandish stories, he didn’t really deliver with the energy needed to connect with this woozy, semi-detached audience. But fortunately there were two other esteemed MCs on the bill to pick up the pace.

The first of them was Jim Smallman, who’s got tattoos so therefore must be a shoo-in for any festival. Indeed, he had come fresh – if that’s the appropriate word – from the altogether more grimy Download before playing this middle-class enclave. His well-rehearsed, non-confrontational audience participation brought attention back on the stage.

His namesake Carly Smallman took the lowest-common denominator route with routines about pet names for her vagina and jaunty songs about wanting to sleep with her brother. But dumbing down was not the way to appeal, and the tent tolerated her, more than embrace her.

Interestingly, and counter-intuitively, Tony Law’s more alternative, and arguably more difficult, brand of comedy worked much better. He’s constantly referencing his weak material and performance trickery, while surreal, sprawling stories such as his brilliantly offbeat interpretation of a ‘two elephants go into a pub…’ routine might be expected to baffle. But quality wins through, and his self-effacing charm and commitment to the oddball proved a hit.

Demolishing the fourth wall, Jarred Christmas prodded and teased the audience – and indeed his own looks and Kiwi accent – with an irresistible bonhomie and magnetising high spirits that blasted through the late-night slump and entertainment overdose the audience had mainlined over the course of the day.

Such late shows weren’t quite the only comedy on offer. Against a backdrop of Dodgy’s greatest hits, Robin Ince presented one of his science-themed hours, with the aid of Gavin Osborn’s whimsical songs about the likes of Carl Sagan and early evolutionist Thomas Huxley, and Professor Bruce Hoof’s lecture on cognitive development. But stand-up isn’t engrained into Wychwood’s DNA like it is, say, at Latitude, and it remains a rather out-of-place adjunct rather than one of the main attractions.

Published: 11 Jun 2012

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