Melbourne International Comedy Festival Oxfam gala | By Lorelei Mathias at the Regent Theatre

Melbourne International Comedy Festival Oxfam gala

By Lorelei Mathias at the Regent Theatre

The gala ushering in the 28th annual Melbourne Comedy Festival is as stuffed with comedy royalty as it is eager fans. Tonight’s recurring themes: Australia Day, being gay, and the right-wing politics of Pauline Hanson. One fun game to play while watching a gala of this sort is to try to guess who will make the cut of the televised edition, or who will go too far. Contenders, ready…

TV’s Wil Anderson kicks things off as MC with jokes about paleo diets and race. A safe pair of hands who has us laughing and thinking in equal measure. At times, serious issues underpin his jokes – from changing the date of Australia to world poverty – this being the festival’s 22nd year of supporting Oxfam.

The warm-up guy is recovering accountant Dilruk Jayasinha – aka. the ‘curry-munching money-cruncher’ – who has us chuckling over stories of his one true love of bacon, while also wishing he came with his own full set. Brilliant and accomplished, Accounting’s loss is our gain.

Anne Edmonds packs a sassy, cynical punch about the unspoken horrors of domestic life – where ‘politeness is pathological’ and the awkwardness has you looking to ‘find the vein with a butter knife’ – amid other such dark observations that take you by surprise and tickle you into a sense of wry recognition. But her finest moment is the comic timing with which she delivers her opening shock gag. Definitely a highlight, and another we are left wanting more of. 

Tommy Little is as much a pro at reading the crowd as he is making the most mundane words in Spanish sound sexy. He is to Candida what Joey Tribbiani is to ‘how you doin’. The highlight of his act is when he pretends to be a doctor saying ‘you have thrush’ in Spanish and it sounds like the choral serenade of a thousand Javier Bardems…on heat. While none of this is fresh material, and there are no insights here to set the world alight, it is certainly entertaining in its execution.

Joel Creasey’s butter-wouldn’t-melt stage presence gives his tales about coming out, carbs and Uber an extra bite, as he delivers them with the energy of a perky smiling assassin. Similarly, Daniel Connell’s innocent boy-next-door looks belie his dark material. His deceptively friendly pub-chat persona gives his tales of shaving spiders an more macabre comic edge.

South Africa’s Loyiso Gola is afraid to do self-checkout as he ‘doesn’t trust himself not to steal your shit’. But he’s not afraid to dazzle the audience with his multi-lingual prowess, the audience sitting up in awe as he performs unique tapping noises with his tongue, before moving on to discuss the zen-like properties of pork.

Demi Lardner will surely have made the cut for the telly edition, with her self-referential yet compulsively watchable act, which begins with her talking to a disembodied voice about needing a snack, and ends with her clambering over unsuspecting audience members while singing about finding a box containing her ‘stash’. Kooky, funny, and cray-cray as a box of frogs.

Frank Woodley cuts a funny figure in his gangly suit as he performs physical comedy about spin-bowling in a manner faintly reminiscent of the Ministry of Silly Walks. His ending is tight, leaving us on a lexically ambiguous note. Was it a happy ending or a gross one? Like a poor man’s choose-your-own-adventure, we decide. 

Five minutes with the frantic and shouty wonder that is Jason Byrne fly by as he tries like blood from a stone to get charisma out of his four random audience members, and improvises excellent quips. Visual comedy morphs into farce as he loses his mind trying to perform a magic trick… but he just can’t get the staff and it’s all going wrong. The highlight of the set is when he has them do the ‘trick’ in slow motion. Then it’s the audience’s turn to lose their mind with laughter.

Paul Foot combines oddball physical comedy with excellent observations about firemen being show-offs: ‘why can’t they just play cards downstairs?’. Then things gets fully weird as he sign-posts the start of the ‘literal surrealism section’. It’s certainly absurd as he takes us through a well-constructed argument about aquatic mammals in cutlery drawers, in an unexpected re-opening of the Pistorius file. 

There’s a palpable wince in the audience from some of the more conservative members, or simply those wondering – Pistorius, now? Really? As he ploughs on with the court case, there is a slightly awkward vibe in the room despite guffaws from the most devout of Foot’s ‘connoisseurs’. But then, awkward is Foot’s lifeblood; he has always thrived on it. But then he’ll deftly diffuse all awkwardness and just like that, all is forgiven.

Perhaps more topically, Comedian’s Comedian Stuart Goldsmith tackles Airbnb and city breaks. The image of him dancing around in his unsuspecting host’s pyjamas, or throwing spoons in the bin, or throwing his hosts spoons in the bin – just because he can – is an enduringly funny one. His observations on relationships are equally astute and well-delivered – from meeting eyes across the room with the bottom of the barrel, to the perils of giving mid-sex feedback.

Rhys Nicholson owns the stage with an unrivalled take-no-shit frankness. His delivery is brilliantly spiky, his material as witty as it is cynical – the highlight being the story of his grandparents’ union, where they got hitched after just five days. There’s a subtlety to Luke McGregor’s delivery that makes him instantly likeable, even as he tells us his theory that most of the world’s problems can actually be solved by wearing a burka. He had a slightly awkward dismount as he seems unsure of the end of his last joke, but overall he has a way of quietly endearing you to him, that makes him an outside highlight.

Rising star from Venezuala Ivan Aristeguieta is charming and insightful as he bounds across the stage. Damien Power, Cal Wilson, Lawrence Mooney all deliver solid material about modern life, families and the creeping disappointments of middle age. Canada’s Mae Martin comes out about childhood yuletide nudity and… coming out. Barry Award winner Sammy J drops a shockingly sombre ditty about a soon-to-be absent father, while New Zealander Urzila Carlson brings no-nonsense tales about biscuits and lesbian parenting. Comic stalwart Nick Cody delivers safe, adequate material about bucks parties and the horrors of staying in hostels to anyone trying to be an adult. 

Arj Barker has a confident, candid delivery you can’t argue with. Watching him is like hanging out with a mate – a mate who’s really persuasive, hilarious and a little bit shouty. Bang-on are his observations about the chasm of differences between Brisbane and Las Vegas, and before long we’re laughing in the face of the pathetic portmanteau that is Brisvegas. 

Another highlight is sketch group Aunty Donna who dance to a different beat entirely. They bring us a bonkers song about how everything – I mean everything is a drum. The result is a surreal mish-mash of musical comedy, mime and bearded banter, aided by note-perfect special effects and comic timing. 

Stephen K Amos begins by sending up the idea of places that need marketing in their name. Beginning in harmless wordplay (putting the ‘high’ in High Wycombe) he then skillfully manoeuvres his way into a joke about pedophilia that doesn’t have the room gasping in shock but laughing their collective head off. Nothing is more shocking than the final image he leaves us with, involving him, a hairdryer, and a… well, that would be telling. By the end we’re so at ease in his presence and wrung out with laughter, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a pro, and a festival legend. And that’s why (as he reminds us in his last segment) they pay him the big bucks. 

Daniel Sloss seals the night by stealing our hearts with an enduring love story  about two gay penguins at Edinburgh Zoo. Highlights are the physical comedy of him demonstrating they don’t have the correct anatomy to high-five, and his observations about life as a gay penguin lovechild. 

But the real high point comes when he does a final, improvised ‘P.S’. When he accidentally shoots off the stage the wrong way, he makes a spontaneous song and dance of sloping back the other way. This endearing bodily ad lib confirms his place as one of the stand-outs of the night. 

Another of the night’s highlights, Matt Okine, combines a sublime delivery with brilliantly observed material about Easter (a conspiracy by organised people). Then he brings it back to the Australia Day issue lest we’d forgotten it for a bit, before concluding with a raging soliloquy about the complexities of the Western calendar. He reels off dates with a beguilingly clever rhythm, but you can barely hear because the audience is applauding so loud.

The stand-out of the stand-outs, though, is Canada’s DeAnne Smith. She may have the persona of a self-confessed cartoon character but her material is wholly live action and explosively funny. As she commits shrewd psychological warfare against the male of the species, she has the women in the room rolling in the aisles, and the men quaking in their boots. 

Such is the power of her caustic polemic that by the time Smith has finished with us, it’s entirely plausible that 50 per cent of the audience will go home, immediately go down on their wives or girlfriends, then ask them to please talk more about themselves. At least for the next week, anyway.

To find out who made the telly, it’ll be on ABC at 8.30pm on April 2.

• Lorelei Mathias is on Twitter here. For full Melbourne International Comedy Festival listings, see their website here.

Review date: 24 Mar 2017
Reviewed by: Lorelei Mathias

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