Latitude 2008

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

DAY ONE: Friday

Latitude has always strived to be more than your normal beer-soaked, mud-splattered music festival, boasting a packed theatre, dance, poetry and literary programme alongside the music and, of course, the comedy. It really is the poshest of festivals.

Robin Ince kicked off the day off in suitably erudite spirit, combining the human genome and a Muppet Show singalong. Ince is what the Latitude clientele look for in a comedian: intelligent, biting humour that packs a punch. The now-weary topic of the evil of the Daily Mail takes new life in Ince’s passionate and unashamedly clever rant against its content and its columnists.

Not many people can match Ince for pace of delivery but Adam Bloom stepped up to the mic with an apparent determination to give the audience at least an hour’s worth of jokes in the 30 minutes stage time he had. Bloom’s material is skillfully crafted, taking the audience on a ride through giggles and groans and always landing on a killer punchline. He even managed to persuade the most politically correct members of the crowd that an inflatable bouncy mosque may be the path to world peace.

The pace and atmosphere in the tent was sadly deflated by Simon Day who was appearing as his misguided daft-lad persona Billy Bleach. This one-dimensional character only had to sustain 30-second bursts in The Fast Show. But 30 minutes in front of a demanding audience left Day stumbling for words and apologising for his material.

The second section of the afternoon soon found the atmosphere back on track as Ben Norris treated the festival-goers to some urban beat poetry, which is about as hip as it gets for a 40-year-old father of triplets. Norris explores the topics of fatherhood, lad culture and cockneys with a genuine sense of angry joy, taking particular delight in some brilliantly crafted wordplay with the East London accent.

The bill indicated that the next act up would be Dave Fulton but we were treated to a couple of special guests instead. Marcus Brigstocke and Andre Vincent told us that Fulton’s homemade motorbike had broken down on the M25 and the best way to console him would be for the audience to leave a cheering message of "your bike’s shit" on his voicemail. Sadly this prank took too long to set up and the atmosphere dipped again, making it difficult for Brigstocke and Vincent to engage the crowd with some Early Edition banter from the day’s papers. This let to some very uninspired heckling, which luckily gave Vincent the opportunity to get the tent back onside with some ruthless putdowns.

After this, one of the highlights of the day. Russell Howard received a rousing welcome and quickly proved why he deserved it. Every word that left his mouth led to a laugh and his warm, friendly persona had the audience hooked. Not only is Howard an exceptionally skilled writer he has a real magic in his delivery that kept more than 2,000 people rapt and shouting for more when he left the stage. He met with an early playful heckle when talking about his recent introduction to Stephen Fry, which resulted in some beautiful ad-libbing and a hilarious and impressive impression of Fry himself.

Howard projects a real sense of genuine and endearing childlike naivety and wonder, his playfulness reflected in his energetic stage presence. This was a faultless set which proved there is much more to him than Mock The Week.

An ill-timed comfort break left me outside the comedy tent for Arnab Chanda’s entertaining but uninspiring set. Chanda’s workmanlike approach to gag-writing achieves the chuckles and laughs that it deserves but it failed to set the tent alight – unlike the next man, Ross Noble.

By this time, the tent was stretched beyond capacity with a few hundred more crowded round the outside. Noble thrilled the crowd with his trademark tangents and surreal fancies, inspired by banter with his audience. After raiding the backstage supply of Red Bull to distribute through the marquee, Noble led the audience in a rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, with the ‘insiders’ singing one line and the ‘outsiders’ singing the next, followed by a massive conga down to a vegan food stall where 3,000 people were to ask for sausage rolls.

Only a Noble mind could form such a ludicrous idea, and only Noble - or maybe Mark Watson – could lead and control such a gathering. He truly is the people’s comedian.

He makes the audience become the show, for which he earns their respect and their trust, until they have utter faith that the madcap plans he comes up with will work. And they did. He created a moment that people will talk about, and the few thousand of us that screamed ‘sausage roll’ in the face of a very confused vegan while Noble crowd surfed to safety will be able to say ‘I was there.’

Compere Andy Robinson then had the difficult task of refilling the now empty comedy tent. A mission made harder by the fact that he had been making a very good job of losing the audience for most of the day. Robinson was a late addition to the bill and it was clear why he had not been first choice.

His material is weak, his interactions with the audience were repeatedly unnecessarily aggressive, and although he was only onstage for mere minutes between acts, he managed to repeat most of his jokes a couple of times. After failing to recreate the Queen singalong that Noble had accomplished ten minutes before he introduced Lee Mack to a subdued audience.

Despite his best attempts Mack struggled to lift the atmosphere. Although he is a known name and an accomplished comedian Mack failed to bring any excitement to a flagging and thinning crowd. He relied heavily on his tried and tested mainstream material, some of which got a good response. But he missed it, because of noise from other tents, so got antsy with the audience. Awkward.

The tension escalated when he forced a young lad to part with his cap, which was then tossed around the tent, leading to a fairly hostile exchange. There was little Mack could do to lift spirits - either his or the audience’s - and the set petered out with an ill-advised Q&A session.

Lucy Porter wisely started her set with some yogic relaxation exercises with a twist. Her charm and whimsy calmed the audience, and with gentle and cheeky tales from her single life, Porter and her imaginary dog brought the laughs back to the comedy tent.

These laughs dissipated, just like the audience, when Phil Kay started his improvised and seemingly never-ending festival song to close the gig. His rambling mess of poorly constructed and ill-conceived surrealism, delivered as he strummed on a guitar, as enough to drive most of the audience to the stages where real music was available – with lyrics more meaningful than a list of the food stalls at the festival. There were few discernible jokes amid the desperate padding.

A very disappointing end to a gig that had climaxed two hours earlier, with a bewildered vegan.

DAY TWO: Saturday

Day two at Latitude is smellier, damper and with a more musical feel to the comedy tent, with all manner of equipment and instruments caging compere Stephen Grant to a small section of the stage. Nonetheless, he bounded on with unshakable enthusiasm,full of guarantees about how good today’s show would be. How right he was.

First up was Dan Atkinson, whose shambolic appearance belies his sharp mind. Atkinson embellishes his jokes with so many levels that some of his most subtle lines were lost on an audience who were still laughing at the previous gag. This is not to say that his material is over-intellectualised, but that it is written with such care as to squeeze every ounce of humour from each topic he touches on, from free-range bees to Torquay nightclubs. Each line just takes you to another level of silly, creating a joyful start to the day.

In stark contrast with Atkinson’s playful observations Carey Marx launched straight into hard-hitting tales of fucking snowmen, drug-addled debauchery and possibly the best rape joke ever written. This may seem like a dangerous selection of topics for a midday slot at a middle-class festival but Marx is smart, with writing that is well structured, clever and slickly delivered. So rather than cause offensive, he is actually charming and very, very funny.

The first musical interlude of the day came from Aussie piano maestro Tim Minchin. Initially the audience were led to believe that Marx’s dark humour would continue, as Minchin opened with his new song, Racist. The atmosphere was decidedly tense as the lyrics explored the power of language to hurt. This tension fuelled the eventual laughter when the brilliantly placed twist in the song was revealed.

Minchin wowed the crowd with his exceptional piano playing, but he is so much more than a standard ‘musical comedian’. His music is inspired and original, a welcome relief from the ‘take a pop tune and replace the lyrics’ approach. His lyrics would be as funny without the musical backing. Plus his stints of straight stand-up between songs are strong, well written and damn funny.

His rousing and much loved eco-friendly song Canvas Bag was my highlight of the day, an environmentally friendly singalong with added light show and wind machine. What more would anyone want from a festival comic?

Having missed Scott Capurro I returned to the tent to see Jon Richardson battle against sound problems, a worrying crunch from the framework and a biblical downpour which led the seated audience to spontaneously stand up mid-punchline to make more room for the drenched crowd waiting outside. A weaker comedian would have struggled to retain attention facing just one of these obstacles but Richardson is made of stronger stuff and presented an impressive set. His self-deprecating humour and astute observations distracted the audience from the conditions, and resulted in one of the best received sets of the day.

Undoubtably the man everyone was here to see was Bill Bailey. His arrival on stage was met with a wall of sound, the audience responding as they would to their rock heroes a few stages over. Some people had specifically bought festival tickets just to see this man perform, and in their eyes he could do no wrong.

There is no doubting Bailey’s comedy pedigree, but this seems to be making him lazy. This set was disappointing and messy, with a lack of opportunities for genuine belly laughs. These low points were highlighted when Bailey relied on well-worn old classics like his masterful love ballad and the audio clips of George Bush being typically George Bushy to get the laughs. It was still a pleasure to watch the man perform, but tinged with some anti-climax.

Jeremy Hardy is a festival favourite with a sharp eye for political observation. But he’s far from arrogant in his delivery, displaying a genuine respect for the intelligence of his audience, who he guided around politics, religion and fatherhood with skill and a poetical and hilarious turn of phrase. This smart approach doesn’t deter Hardy from frivolity, however, which he displayed beautifully with a finale impersonating comedy chums, from Norman Lovett to Barry Cryer and Humphrey Lyttelton.

Miles Jupp has honed arrogance to an art, and it took the audience a few minutes to see beyond his bragging introduction to the irony beneath his uber-posh persona, which cleverly mocks the upper classes. Jupp is still a using a couple of lines as old as his comedy career, but they are great lines. Thankfully, his newer material is just as good, and he employs some fantastic storytelling skills to keep the audience hooked.

Rich Hall may display some of the outwardly stereotypical traits of an American abroad, loud, opinionated and brash. But he is apologetic, well travelled and all too aware of European attitudes to his country’s politics. In his a hard-hitting set, Hall spews more than a stomach’s worth of bile over the American political animal, with high-energy and high-impact rants. His set ended in a hostage stand-off where Hall refused to leave the stage until all the audience had gone. Eventually the comic had to admit defeat when faced with a huge standing ovation.

Yet again, Latitude provided a great day of comedy to entertain the muddied masses.Reviewed by: Corry Shaw

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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