Cambridge Comedy Festival | Gig review by Steve Bennett
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Cambridge Comedy Festival

Gig review by Steve Bennett

Saturday was, by all accounts, the day to go to the Cambridge Comedy Festival: the sun was shining and the crowds were thronging.

On contrast, Friday saw a downpour that demonstrated the risk of any open-air event in the UK, even in July, while on Sunday – which effectively became an eight-hour pre-match build-up show – crowds were decidedly thin on the ground. The excellent line-up of comics deserved more – many of whom will easily command the £34.50 cost of a day ticket just for their own show – as did the ambitious event itself.

All-comedy weekenders are always going to be tougher sell than festivals with music – and you’re going to be hard-pressed to recreate the intimacy and excitement of a packed club in the open air. But as a chilled way to absorb a mass of amusing thoughts, there’s plenty to appeal.

Five stages were originally planned on the festival site, whose pleasantly landscaped fields were formerly home of the Secret Garden Party – though the undulations made it look more like the home of the Teletubbies. The delays in relaxing lockdown rules put paid to the lake stage – although the hardier punters still took a dip in the fresh water, Meanwhile the picturesque Glade stage in a woodland clearing had been all-but abandoned yesterday, save for a couple of podcast recordings, perhaps because of lack of crowds.

That left the main stage, a teepee for the kids, and an attractive amphitheatre, which struggled to draw the numbers for comics performing full shows. Audiences for Scott Bennett and Andrew Bird (whose set included a nice story in tribute to Ian Cognito, who died on stage at Bird’s gig) barely hit double figures. And far too few witnessed Paul Foot’s unique absurdity or the withering Gallic putdowns of the perpetually underwhelmed Marcel Lucont, here backed by a three-piece band.

In a routine shot through with supercilious wit, he referred to the event as the ‘Cambr-ish’ comedy festival, given its actual location is about 40miles from the university city, and wryly referred to the audience as survivors of the pandemic, living in makeshift accommodation, foraging for food in a field and shitting in a bucket.

The C-word was the elephant in the field, with comics having to decide on whether to mention Covid or not. As Maisie Adam freely admitted in her main-stage set, the audience probably want to get away from all that, but not to acknowledge the bizarre circumstances of the last year-and-a-bit would have seemed absurd.

Rosie Jones probably had the best line inspired, obliquely, by the lockdown, likening her distinctive delivery to ‘what your voice sounds like on Zoom when your internet is shit’ as she embarked on her set bursting with positivity and mischievous playfulness.

Al Murray – who might have headlined had he not got a date with the Euros final in the evening – used the coronavirus crisis to hail the beautiful British spirit,  tongue-in-cheek comparing the sacrifice of the wartime generation with us doing our patriotic duty to stay at home and do nothing. And his tried-and-tested rabble-rousing performance of Itsy Bitsy Spider aimed to put some fire in the crowds’ collective belly ahead of the football.

Jo Caulfield also lent into the pandemic, with lockdown giving her excuses not to do the things she hates – which are legion – but also heightened her irritation at her husband, all conveyed in her usual cheerily snide way.

Even more relatable domesticity came from Bennett’s second set of the day, this time on the main stage, full of tales of trying-his-best parenting and the realisation that he’s slipped into middle age. These are staple subjects, but Bennett works them hard – a consummate pro bringing a scattered crowd on board with a killer combo of determined delivery and nice-guy everyman demeanour.

Tom Allen, surely the only person who goes to festivals in a suit and tie, dedicated much of his set to bantering with the audience, playing up to his cultivated image – and the genteel demographic of the audience – with chat about visiting English Heritage properties. That segued easily into amusing scripted memories of the days when we were allowed to go places.

Earlier, Julian Deane didn’t quite have the oomph – or the profile – to get his set fully over the line, though he’s got some delightful wordplay that deserved more than he was getting.

But Seann Walsh had a shocker. Chalk it up to rustiness, perhaps, but he forgot what he was going to say in his opening rotuine about Boris Johnson – and compounded the error later when he launched into some jokes about his encroaching middle-age that he had already told us.

This, he was at pains to point out, was the effect of too much coffee, rather than too much booze, having sworn off alcohol - perhaps advisedly given what trouble it landed him in when on Strictly.

Luckily his whole shtick revolves around being a shambles, so he was able to turn his set around, more-or-less – especially with a lovely mental image of a Henry vacuum cleaner,  even if it was sat amid other material that’s carrying a bit of excess baggage.

But with so much comedy on offer, in a charmingly laid-back setting, the blip to the day’s enjoyment is only minor. And, hopefully, the numbers were good enough for a repeat performance of this al-fresco festival next year, even if we should be allowed back inside by then.

Review date: 12 Jul 2021
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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