New Zealand International Comedy Festival 2012

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

So I’ve reviewed a handful of acts from the Wellington leg of this year’s New Zealand International Comedy Festival, and managed to type up the following in between massaging my jaw (it still hurts from laughing).

Stephen K. Amos in Laughter is My Agenda; Opera House, April 30
Stephen K. Amos was one of the biggest names of this comedy festival. He’s a suave dude, blending the pomp and pomposity of London with a pride in his Nigerian heritage, and he is a total pro. The first half of his one hour set is a bit of a catch up. We find out about his recent Adelaide tour and how he’s changed since he was last in New Zealand. The second half of his show is a condensed life story. It’s all solid material (though not solid enough to discourage the odd obnoxious heckler), particularly the first half. His ‘agenda’—that everyone in the theatre is guaranteed a laugh—is comfortably achieved.

David O’Doherty is Looking Up; Downstage Theatre, May 1-5
There is a very thin line between tragedy and comedy, and it is thoroughly erased by the self-effacing honesty of David O’Doherty. Part record of his recovery after a particularly bad breakup, part concert of existential comedy songs on life, David O’Doherty is Looking Up is a whimsical embrace of melancholy. By looking a bit sleepy and in need of a hug, and by admitting his “massively overly active sense of nostalgia,” he endears himself to his audience. Also he makes fun of Cosmopolitan’s 1000 Top Sex Tips of All Time. He’s very clever, he’s very lovable, he’s a must see.

History Never Repeats by the Improvisers; Circa Theatre, May 1-5
To condense all of history into a one hour show is ambitious. The Improvisers gallop from Roman times to the future and then back again, telling an alternative history of the world. This is history as it has never been seen before and never will be seen again. Using “ask-fors” from the audience, we get the first half of a story from seven historical periods, then when we reach the future we turn around and, working backwards, conclude each story.

We witness Gluteus Maximums struggling to purchase the perfect slave and his realization that what he was really searching for had been in front of him the whole time. We admire the courage of Vikings making the perilous journey across the sea to England to fight nuns. We wince at the slightly racist saga of a Japanese Shogun proving his love to a quiet Japanese girl. We cheer as the potato-less Irish beat those snotty English in a dance battle. Then we celebrate the success of an audience member’s triumph against a gang of knife welding Liverpudlians. Finally, we gasp as the futuristic battle between flying robots and crying robots is enacted.

The seven time periods are linked by arbitrary but charming return characters and motifs, and the audience feels very clever when they notice throw away lines from previous scenes being incorporated 200 years in the future. It’s a great idea, but requires a bit of self-restraint in the first half to give the conclusions the satisfying length they deserve.

Joseph Harper in Marching Toward Death With Wobbly Legs Like A Velociraptor; Tararua Tramping Club, May 3-4
Joseph Harper is awesome. He’s created Marching Toward Death With Wobbly Legs Like A Velociraptor for the comedy festival, but he’s “not entirely sure if this is, in fact, a comedy show.” To an extremely supportive crowd, he uses his own life and his mother’s multiple sclerosis to explore his fears and feelings towards death. This isn’t ‘laughing in the face of death’ funny, it’s just funny. It’s that perfect tone of black humor, which allows us to ask the hard questions about life in a contemplative way. He talks about attending the funeral of the grandfather he is named after. He has us close our eyes for a thought experiment. He recommends books. My only complaint is he is too apologetic. That self-doubt is part of his onstage charm, but is best used in moderation.

Harper speaks honestly about things that are genuinely important to him, and they become important to us. A festival highlight.

Steve Wrigley in Life Out of Left Field; San Francisco Bathhouse, May 7-12
He’s the dude from 7 Days, but on a stage. Steve Wrigley is very popular and it’s clear why: he’s very good. He’s professional, he’s personable, and he’s a bit rough around the edges. I’m not sure why the show is called Life out of Left Field though; he is pretty insistent that he is a normal run-of-the-mill Kiwi bloke providing classic kiwi comedy to other average kiwi lads and lassies. He thrives on anti-intellectual banter (“I’m not one of those comedians who know stuff, okay?”). Picking on neurosurgeons in the audience, Christian upbringings, television commercials, audience members going to the toilet, and anyone who tries to tell him what to do, Wrigley’s ability to extrude comedy from things that fucking annoy him is joyful.

It was his first show of the festival, so a couple of well managed mind blanks took the sheen off the evening, and the anticlimactic ending was a shame, but Wrigley is far cleverer than he lets on. If you’re after a few beers and a few laughs, Wrigley is the perfect choice.

Greg Ellis in Command Performance; BATS, May 8-12
A lounge jazz singer with a shady past and a sparkly shirt takes the stage, and, through a suburban concert of improvised songs, we find out just what Mr. Vance Fontaine (Greg Ellis) has achieved in his life. Combining improvisation, singing, stand-up, and a four-piece band, Greg Ellis’s alter ego Vince Fontaine is one consummate all round performer. From the opening song about his favorite phrase (‘Don’t Touch it if it Doesn’t Belong to You’), to his collaboration with Coldplay on the Eastern European rest home circuit (‘It’s Your Fault, Steve’—named after the audience member who foolishly suggested Coldplay), Vince Fontaine’s story crosses genres and styles.

The Peculiar Sensations provide music for Vince, and they are sublime. L. Ron Beattie (Thomas P. McGrath) is on drums, John Doe (Matiu Whiting) is on base, Tony Fork (Tane Upjohn-Beatson) is on guitar, and Errol Flanagan (Takumi Motokawa) is on keys, and together they’re on form. From lounge jazz to dub step, country and western to R&B, they pull all genres off effortlessly. Greg Ellis is clearly the star of the show, and plays the diva role with aplomb. Awesome.

Yeti Is Dead / I Am Tom; BATS Theatre, May 8-12
Madcap and wacky for the sake of being wacky and madcap.

Ursula Carlson in I’m Going to Need a Second Opinion; Fringe Bar, May 8-12
There is something spine tingling about hearing “young hot dinosaur bitches” in a South African accent. Ursula Carlson has been a clear favorite of this year’s comedy festival; her shows have been almost totally sold out.

Using the ‘second opinion’ as a launching pad, Carlson fills us in on her cancer scare, coming out as gay, her opinions on children and what happens to the leftover food that goes to the starving kids in Africa. The difference between what we think and what we say (Inner Ursula versus Outer Ursula) is sweet and honest. She is incredibly likable, using charm and swearing to endear herself across the board. Her parting advice is at once crude and poignant: “don’t fuck up your life.”

Fan Fiction Comedy; Fringe Bar, May 13
Fan fiction, normally banished to the quieter corners of the Internet, is celebrated in all its overwritten glory in this surprise hit of the festival. It’s a simple concept, rewriting characters and worlds created by others to fulfill your own intentions, and it’s brilliantly executed. (For my favourite example of genuine FanFic exploited for comedy check, out this.) Jamie Adam crosses Brock from Pokemon with Macbeth. Sam Smith fills the gap in the market for TV3 News fan fiction. Edith Poor delivers an MTV Teen Mom story. Jared Baker takes a literal approach to fan fiction and writes fiction about a desk fan. Heidi O’Loughlin explains the origin of the Hufflepuff Badger. Eli Matthewson explores the hidden sexual desires of storm troopers in a brilliant song. Joseph Moore rounds off the evening with a tale from Lego Harry Potter.

Each story was commented on by the evening’s anti-judge, Steven Boyce, and the evening’s MC was Nick Rado. A joyous celebration of geek culture and creative writing. Bring it back to Wellington. Please.

The Last Saloon by WIT; BATS Theatre, May 15-19
Improvising an entire long-form Western movie is an ambitious task, and WIT do an impressive job at creating an evocative and satisfying evening. The Last Saloon was very, very funny. For every Western cliché (slightly mad prospectors, strangers coming to town, lots of whiskey), there is a Noises Off-style theatrical trick (talcum powder to indicate a dust cloud, a sawhorse indicating an actual horse). The cast has clearly mastered the genre, their accents are impressive, and their grasp on Western tropes is evident. Their musician is wonderful, evoking that frontier atmosphere subtly and with great skill. And yet, the only ask-for we give the actors is the name of the town (Greedy Mountain). Then the show proceeds with costumes and sets already existing. Ask-fors are vital to prove that you’re actually making all this up on the spot. Any doubt that what we’re seeing isn’t improvised leaves us with a slightly bitter taste regardless of how superb the show actually is.

Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues by Hayley Sproull; BATS Theatre, 15-19 May
Bursting onto the stage, Miss Fletcher wastes no time putting the audience in their place: we’re a rebellious boy’s geography class, and she is here to help us control our throbbing hormones. High school can be a minefield of issues and sometimes we all need a straight talking, hard hitting substitute teacher to remind us that “growing up is hard, aye.” Miss Fletcher, the over sharing music teacher has some advice from her own life: “instead of going mental, I get musical.”

Within the framework of a lesson, Hayley Sproull demonstrates a simple concept beautifully executed. The character is genius, and provides a great basis for a series of superb songs.  Songs like ‘Things I Hate’, ‘If I Were Queen of New Zealand’, and ‘Trip To India’ are so hilarious we need to strain to hear over the laughter.  Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues is a real treat, highly recommended.

Public Service Announcements; BATS Theatre, May 16-19
Mastering the 9.30pm slot at BATS, James Nokise has crafted a punchy, unrelentingly funny script that is brought to life by an incredibly talented bunch of actors. Using the budget announcement as a launching pad, we find ourselves in the Beehive, being swept from room to room, catching meetings between different politicians. Our political leaders are distorted, magnified and camped up by a committed and energetic team of actors. Particularly memorable is the ever-suave Winston Peters (Allan Henry), David Parker (Thom Adams), and every role played by Kate McGill.

Public Service Announcements is saturated with political and satirical digs, but it’s incredibly funny even if these fly over your head. The plot is satisfyingly satirical and political diatribes are wonderful. A sidesplitting work of political satire, Public Service Announcements is fast, frank, and fantastic.

The 20th New Zealand International Comedy Festival ran from April 27 to May 20.
Filed under: ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

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Samuel Phillips is the Wellington theatre editor for The Lumière Reader. When he isn’t reviewing theatre he can be found making theatre with Wellington-based company, Bright Orange Walls, or studying at Victoria University of Wellington.