With an unusually international line-up of comics both well-known and new to the Harbour City, the Sydney Comedy Festival Gala had a great opportunity to kick off the event’s 2019 season with a bang different to previous years, where Australian comics tend to dominate its key show. Unfortunately, it would have been better to leave the formula unchanged.
At just over one hour of comedy split between 13 different comedians and comedy duos, the Opera House’s Concert Hall stage functioned more like a constantly-revolving door than anything else. Lycett, the show’s MC and therefore the figure the audience sees most, provides a fine introduction to each comic, merging bits one would remember from his time on British game show 8 Out of 10 Cats with a satisfactory level of audience interaction to keep the crowd fresh and engaged. Far less in-your-face than your typical Australian comic, his calm and measured pacing contrasted well with the rush of the comics who only had 5 minutes each to show off their skills.
The gift and curse of a show like this is the numerous comedic styles one is subject to; each comedian, with their own unique ebb and flow, has to control the audience in their own specific way. If that comedian is young Scottish standup Fern Brady, that control is achieved through exploring the hypocrisy of closeted anti-LGBT lesbians and the advantages or disadvantages of consuming another’s organic fluids. Yet, for the middle-aged Georgie Carroll, it’s by telling the story of one’s life with a teenager who has to Google what Hitler’s last name is. Such comic variety makes it difficult to find consistent laughs, setting the bar far higher for the performing comedians than they would likely experience at their own shows.
Impressively, there are numerous times when this consistency is found. Tahir, so Western Sydney you know it took him at least an hour to get to Circular Quay via public transport, demonstrates an impressive array of material, ranging from Schapelle Corby’s struggles at self-checkouts with unexplained items in the bagging area to stabbing librarians as proof of his residency, that one knows his solo show will do very well. The same goes for Tom Ballard, the millennial comic Rhys Nicholson wishes he was, and The Chaser, whose political dialogue is as sharp as ever. Of the international comics, Canadian Mark Forward’s shy character and over-explained jokes leave you in tears of laughter without really knowing why, cementing him as the night’s top comedian whether he has a panty hose on his head or not. Special mention to Phil Wang’s bit on rules around imitating foreign accents and Ivan Aristeguieta’s confusion on Australian English as a third language for giving us a solid reason to give their solo shows a try as well.
However, for all that strength, one does ultimately leave the show with mixed opinions. With those comedians peppered throughout the show, the styles of Tom Allen, Lauren Pattison, and Larry Dean drew significantly less of an audience response. Whether it was the acoustics of the Concert Hall, the audience not really understanding the material, or something with their set, those 5-minute performances did seem to drag on with noticeably fewer laughs. No more was this observed than in Phil Jupiter’s closing set, which as a collection of fluctuating material concerning animal noises and a Scotsman’s unenthusiastic sexual moans, was honestly a fitting summary of the entire evening (for both better and worse). Well established comics Sean McLoughlin and Jamali Maddox did what they could to save the night in the gala’s second half, but unfortunately the damage was already done.
Ultimately, the 2019 edition of the SCF Gala was an interesting experiment. Whilst there were genuine moments of comedic brilliance, demonstrating the potential this festival has, by the same token there were times where 5 minutes felt like 50. Whether these comments will translate to each comedian’s solo shows is yet to be seen, but already I know who I’ll be keeping a firm eye on over the next few weeks.
The 2019 Sydney Comedy Festival is on from 22 April to 18 May.