Glasgow International Comedy Festival Closing Gala 2024 | Review of the festival's big hurrah
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Glasgow International Comedy Festival Closing Gala 2024

Review of the festival's big hurrah

Usually when a compere's suddenly overwhelmed it's an ominous sign. Susie McCabe went from unflappably hosting this celebration of her home city's resurgent comedy festival, to kicking off the second half with the more casually soul-baring aspects of her stand-up, before ultimately taking home the Sir Billy Connolly Spirit of Glasgow Award, commended by the Big Yin himself in a pre-recorded video. She looked visibly stunned, receiving hugs all round on stage, but delivered a composed acceptance speech.

If not a fait accompli, you wouldn't have found a dissenting voice in the venue. Deemed the act who most embodies Glasgow's sense of humour this year, McCabe is approaching the peak of her powers, a natural storyteller who's still finding more and more of herself to reveal, blending innate, impish charm, with down-to-earth relatability, despite having more physical and mental quirks than she's prepared to have officially diagnosed.

Emotionally nobbling the host afforded a dramatic conclusion to a two-and-a-half hour afternoon production. With 563 shows over less than three weeks, this was the biggest GICF in its 22-year history. And the gala, returning for its second year, is a reasonably diverse, pacey carousel of a Scottish comedy scene that's displaying its rudest health for a long time.

A sometime radio DJ and ​wrestling commentator, Billy Kirkwood proved more of an MC than the MC and took the stage of the venerable King's Theatre in sunglasses and shorts, with his copious tattoos fully on display.

 Practically a caricature of a comedian with ADHD, the Ayrshire native flits from subject to subject with nary a discernible link. But he's a born rabble-rouser, cramming in some casual filth, big audience singalongs and semi-nudity into his scattergun, crowd-warming shtick.

Kiri Pritchard-McLean has mastered the art of undermining her own altruism, her dry, self-mocking wit conveying her selflessness in a way that doesn't irritate. 

She can even admonish the crowd for not giving greater appreciation for the decision by her and her partner to become foster parents. Covering a largely untapped area for stand-up, Pritchard-McLean is adept at noting the quirks in the application process, while the authorities' and her mother's pragmatic takes on child rearing strip away most of the sentimentality.

With the Welsh comic unequivocally anti-Tory in a way that reaches beyond seeking an easy Celtic connection with the Scottish crowd – or simply playing to the gallery – she casts her fare-dodging on public transport as a principled, socialist strike against The Man, the better to set herself up for a fall when a stranger's kindness undermines her. Elegantly crafted stuff.

As McCabe suggested, Stuart McPherson is now at that level of the Scottish circuit where performing a solo show at the King's Theatre is likely within his grasp soon. And this was a decent preview for that. 

Sauntering on, he was dismissive of the lure of London for his career, with Glasgow quite metropolitan enough for a Fifer who protests too much that he's not some hayseed hick raised in rural backwardness. The vision he conjures of his native Kirkcaldy is affectionate, cartoonishly vivid and totally undermines him. Alhough essentially a personal anecdotalist, with some economic asides about his relationship with his father, he's adroit at placing his struggles in a broader and well-observed social context.

With her tales of fecklessness and misadventure, Susan Riddell recalls Joanne McNally in her capacity for idiosyncratic, personal humiliation that has the potential to strike a chord with a sizeable mainstream audience. And she nailed it here with a routine about her holiday embarrassment.  Accepting free alcohol at the breakfast buffet, her fondness for dogs sets in motion a car crash interaction with her fellow guests, which, however unlikely, is all in the telling. 

Neatly executed, the pull-back and reveal is delivered with a precision that belies the awkwardness of the encounter.

Jin Hao Li was one of the standouts of the recent BBC New Comedy Awards. And he reiterated why with a set full of memorable imagery, offbeat, destabilising subject matter from the first and a sadistic edge that's rendered doubly so by his soft voice, which also encourages leaning in. 

Deconstructing missing child posters, pointing out their graphic design flaws and suggesting improvements from the advertising playbook, he's brutal in chasing his conceit, adding grim topper after topper for escalating laughs, the rhythm acquiring a beguiling hypnotism.

When he name checks Madeleine McCann or slaughters innocent wildlife in a bit of fantastical whimsy recalling the plastic bag nonsense in American Beauty, it's with a controlled awareness of the darkness that he's playing with. Daring rather than simply gratuitous, it's so much more artful than cheap shock tactics.

Considerably more established, veteran headliner Craig Hill came barrelling out to close the first half with his trademark kilt and high-energy, aggressive camp. 

Citing virtually every town in Scotland as a hive of inbreeding and knuckle-dragging, and pursuing hook-ups in the front rows with an appealing mix of puckish flirtation and threatening inducement suggestive of sexual assault, his act has barely changed in 20 years and for better and worse, sticks out as a throwback to a time when cultural sensitivities were perhaps more sweeping and robust.

The ned jokes certainly feel like punching down nowadays, while the diva-esque bursts of song with local tweaks to the lyrics have the flimsiest justification and could get you escorted from a cruise ship for naffness. But you can't argue with the sheer force of personality Hill still projects and he bulldozed this show into the interval.

Rather more measured because of his stroke last year, though only relatively so compared to Hill, Raymond Mearns was surely McCabe's only serious rival for the Billy Connolly

Award. With 30 years in stand-up and a slave to his lustful appetites, he's got that Les Dawson quality of hiding an agile, considerable intellect in the body of a curmudgeonly, combustible and pudgy clown. But there's life in the old dog yet and he's got a rather more surreal inclination than Manchester's finest.

From the mundane setup of his love of chips after a night on the sauce, he contrives a superb scenario of gold diggers lining up to see him into an early grave and the threat of nuclear apocalypse, beckoning Vladimir Putin's warheads with an epic scheme of self-defeating deceit and penny-pinching. 

Hearteningly, although he appears noticeably fitter and healthier than he has for many a year, the newfound vim doesn't seem to have impacted Mearns' blustering persona.

Unfortunately, the only act not to do herself justice was Zara Gladman in the guise of her Glasgow West End mum Aileen. The TikTok comic successfully made the transition to her debut, full-length live show in the West End earlier in the festival, generally smashing the half of it she spent on stage as her most established alter-ego.

But away from her home turf and her online following, the character struggled. A textbook example of not assuming your audience's familiarity, Gladman compounded the problem with an overlong opening song and by not choosing tried and tested material. 

Instead she conducted a video-enabled exchange with her Edinburgh frenemy, Morningside mum Sandra, played by Sophie McCabe, asking the crowd to tune into their relationship when there simply wasn't time to establish it cold, eliciting only polite titters.

When Luisa Omielan broke through more than a decade ago she'd been burned in relationships. But her effervescent charisma and onstage energy were the takehomes, her feminist positivity abounding. 

These days she's more reflective and cynical and eases into her set more gradually. But she's still convinced of her opinions, dismissing age-equivalent couples with hard-earned logic, her downbeat take offset by the strength of her conviction that women like her, in their early 40s, belong with younger men. A nakedly self-serving perspective, but Omielan is unapologetic in reinforcing it, reassuring her theoretical boyish lover with blanket condescension and very funny insistence.

McCabe effectively introduced Rosco McClelland as an unpredictable agent of chaos. And he instantly lived up to that billing with a bleak visual gag about the Baltimore bridge tragedy. 

A former plumber who doesn't seem cut out for a regular vocation, he makes a mockery of the job interview process. He self-consciously lives at one remove from regular society, championing Scotland's proud history of great inventors as the desperate acts of men who were out to forcibly extract themselves from their tedious existences. 

With a nonchalant, take-me-as-I-am attitude, McClelland never gives the impression of being overawed and took his chance to impress.

Finally, last year's Billy Connolly award winner, Janey Godley, closed out the show with a pugnacious performance even by her standards, her ongoing survival from terminal cancer and booking of an autumn tour rammed down the throats of her doubters, with the SNP's new hate crime bill accepted as a challenge from those who would try to censor her.

Lamenting her husband's Catholicism and autism, she dismisses sensitivity towards neurodiversity as a luxury for those who don't live with it every day and finished with what might be dubbed a reverse-Fritzl, conjuring a scenario in which she imprisons a man in her basement with the most warped justification. 

It might seem trite to say it but facing death down has fully removed the gloves from Godley's attack and in a short set, she relentlessly swings impressive punch after punch.

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Review date: 31 Mar 2024
Reviewed by: Jay Richardson
Reviewed at: Glasgow King's Theatre

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