Laughs In The Park 2011

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Just before Laughs In The Park, Eddie Izzard became the first solo comedy act to play the Hollywood Bowl, entertaining 12,000 people in the venue where Monty Python and the Beatles once ruled.

But in St Albans, it’s a more difficult sell. Probably as this most certainly isn’t LA weather. The ambitious Laughs In The Park festival, now in its second year, has a capacity of around 6,000, but on this first night of three, it’s half-full at best, despite the added attractions of Ross Noble, Tommy Tiernan – and a side-stage sponsored by the BBC offering an afternoon line-up of strong circuit acts.

Nor do many shows start with an arial display team, but the four planes that execute impressive manoeuvres above Verulamium Park certainly piloted home the message that this is a big show.

The start of the comedy itself is a little less slick, as Noble cowers in the foliage that dresses the stage, urging the audience to take their seats. They only really comply when he comes out from the undergrowth and starts riffing with Izzard... after all, no one wants to miss the two master surrealists together. And jolly good fun it is too, especially when they start mimicking each other.

Once the show proper starts, Noble seems a little off-form; getting overly fixated on the idea that the on-stage shrubbery might be a dogging spot, although his imagination never really lets fly on the subject. However his banter with the audience members who attempt to yell things out is sharper, undoubtedly helped by the fact that one heckler’s seat hilariously collapses mid-sentence.

Back after the interval, the flightly Geordie hits his mark more accurately, with a prepared routine about Bono visiting that proves hugely entertaining, mainly due to Noble’s drifting accent and grotesque exaggeration of the U2 frontman’s persona.

Then Tommy Tiernan, who continues his steady bid to become as acclaimed in Britain as he is back home with this high-profile appearance – and he would surely have won over a lot of fans tonight.

On the face of it, he’s a walking cliche – a twinkle-eyed Irishman talking about religion, drinking and family life. But that’s to ignore the clear fact that he has the vocabulary of a poet, the soul of a maverick and the passion of an evangelist.

He sermonises against the cosy, cosseted modern life, urging us to be freed by the rush of unpredictability. ‘It’s important to stay wild,’ he exhorts, ‘to have a touch of lunacy about you.’ He practises what he preaches, too, this fiery iconoclast, with a whirlwind set that often has a frisson of danger.

But it’s not all bombast, Tiernan has supreme control of a crowd’s emotions - even a crowd as big as this one – turning them on a sixpence. He’ll rant and rave against the Irish economy or overemotional teenagers one minute, then bring it down to a whisper as he talks about a brother who died. But it’s not maudlin or mawkish, just another way of celebrating life.

His command of the mood is matched only by his command of the language. There are the grand, witty metaphors that get the laughs, but it’s the pleasing eloquence in almost every phrase, something as simple as coining the mass noun ‘a platoon of baboons’, that ensures joy in even the smallest detail. It’s why he’s one of the finest comedians Ireland has ever produced.

It was a tough act to follow... even if you are Eddie Izzard. The star attraction was somewhat overshadowed by his support act, not helped by the fact that the heavens opened by the second half, and audiences cowering under umbrellas or pulling hats tight around their ears are never going to be the most responsive.

Izzard trotted through some of his greatest hits from his Stripped show, the one which covers the entire history of civilisation with a slight atheist undertow. Tonight, we got the first bit, from dinosaurs through the dawning of the Stone Age to Hannibal crossing the Alps.

It’s jolly entertaining stuff, thanks to his one-man sketches such as the cavemen discovering language or the Roman messenger struggling with Latin that owes more than a nod to Izzard’s Python heroes. He knows this stuff backwards (and even in French, as his recent run in Paris proved) and the preposterous imagery and witty anachronisms are as funny as Izzard is smart.

But he did do a lot of this material here last year – and while there’s some pleasure to be had in hearing his greatest hits, this festival probably demands a greater turnover of material from one year to the next if it’s to get the repeat business to be sustainable. As tonight’s attendance showed – it’s a big ask filling 18,000 seats in a city with a population of 65,000, even if it is only half an hour out of London.

The idea of Laughs In The Park is a strong one, though, borrowing from music festivals to make a big, bold, must-see event – and the production here is faultless, from that initial flypast to the fireworks at the end. If only the British summer was so reliable.

Review date: 23 Jul 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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