Melbourne International Comedy Festival reviews

First published on RHUM, April 2012.

Celia Pacquola: Delayed @ Melbourne Town Hall

In 2010 Celia Pacquola left her home town of Melbourne and moved to London in pursuit of self-transformation, thinking that living overseas (in an English-speaking country full of Australians) would change her. Delayed is the product of that experience. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Delayed is a study of the human condition. Unlike Shakespeare, Pacquola delves into such universal themes as our relationship to toilet paper, seeing someone accidentally punch a stranger in the face, and faking marriage proposals on the Eiffel Tower.

You might know Pacquola as Roo McVie’s cool/weird best friend and housemate EJ in ABC TV’s Laid, and the character and the performer have a lot in common (not surprising since many of her lines in Laid were ad-libbed). Both openly report the deeply odd thoughts and compulsions that flit through their brains. But Pacquola the stand up comedian is far more animated, using her great skill for dork dancing and gestural expression to wonderful comedic effect. The girl is gangly.

For Pacquola, living overseas was not so much about exploration as it was about isolation – from her friends, family and partner back in Melbourne. She confesses that she doesn’t really care about seeing the world and so her stories about the trip focus more on her internal world and being alone than on the locations she visited. Which is a relief – she opens the show with an ironic jape about ‘making stories from a trip overseas sound interesting’, but there is nothing of the excruciating slide show vibe that can so often slip into travel tales. Just warm, relatable and occasionally sweary anecdotes from a charming lady wearing sneakers.

Before she left the country two years ago Pacquola’s star was very much on the rise here in Melbourne. Her last two MICF seasons sold out, so don’t delay (see what I did there?) in grabbing tickets for her show this year.

Chuckle factor: 4/5

Andrew O’Neill: Alternative @ Pony

For a guy who doesn’t believe in God, Andrew O’Neill really knows how to invoke a bit of evil. His stand-up routine is friendly enough, full of gentle jokes about spiders in the swimming pool and the odd Cockney music hall song. But it’s studded with unsettling micro-stories about men with crab claws for hands, delivered in menacing asides to singled-out audience members. Then there’s his penchant for spinning out a joke until he finds the very limits of funny, such as miming the writing, enveloping, addressing, stamping and posting of a letter from start to finish, or mapping out a diet plan in which one eats foods in alphabetical order, all the way from A to Z. A different kind of evil.

O’Neill’s natural habitat is alternative culture. He’s a transvestite (although he prefers the term ‘clothes weirdo’), a metal head and deeply passionate about the politics of gender, class and equality. His material ranges from the absurd to the ranty, mostly hitting all the right notes but occasionally missing – a spot of Christian bashing got maybe half his standard laughs out loud and went on for much too long. But for the most part he kept the pace cracking along brilliantly, cramming a crate load of high quality gags into the hour.

He’s a bit of a shapeshifter, switching from silly duffer to psycho circus ringleader in the blink of an eye. That element of surprise keeps the tone from going stale, but his solid fanbase knows what to expect and laps up every bit. O’Neill knows how to engineer a tight routine, and Alternative is a very satisfying sixty minutes of comedy.

Chuckle factor: 3.5/5

Felicity Ward in The Hedgehog Dilemma @ Victoria Hotel – Vic’s Bar

Poor hedgehogs. They want to cuddle up to each other during the cold winter months, but the threat of injury prevents them from getting close. And so it often is with humans – we crave intimacy but there’s always a strong chance that someone could lose an eye. In 2006 Felicity Ward had a close encounter with a wedding that was cancelled at the last minute by the venue, prompting her to reassess her eight year relationship and realise that she wanted out. The Hedgehog Dilemma is about the years following that event, in which Ward confronted loneliness, learning to date again, and a prickly case of alcoholism.

Sounds like a real downer, right? Good thing Ward is one of the funniest women in the country. Wildly ridiculous and initially wearing her actual wedding dress, Ward cartwheels through song and dance, character sketches, cute animal pictures and a host of damn funny gags while she’s dredging up her unpleasant past.

Ward’s comedy superpower is her total willingness to divulge the unfiltered details of the lowest, most disgraceful moments in her life. She’s self-deprecating but not ashamed about the dickhead things she’s done, and her radical honesty and sense of self-acceptance in spite of everything is what bonds her with the audience.

This is the most autobiographical of Ward’s solo comedy shows, and while it does border on therapy it benefits from the strong story arc and tale of triumph over adversity. Even the spikiest of hedgehogs will leave the show feeling less alone.

Chuckle factor: 4/5

Christina Adams and Penny Tangey – Chalk and Talk: Lessons from the Classroom @ Three Degrees

After debuting the show at last year’s Fringe, secondary teacher Christina Adams and dedicated lifelong learner Penny Tangey are back again with another term of Chalk and Talk. Life as a teacher gets an honest assessment as the two pick apart staff meetings, photocopier wars and students who try to exit rooms through the windows.

While there are laughs to be had for anyone who’s ever set foot in a school (hopefully all of us except for those weird home-schooled kids) the show is aimed pretty squarely at members of the teaching profession. Concession tickets are available to VIT card holders (as in professional registration body, the Victorian Institute of Teaching) and they seemed to be out in force on opening night. Their laughs of recognition and solidarity helped cement the relationship between the performers and the audience, making for a lovely community vibe.

The venue, unfortunately, is shithouse. The space upstairs at Three Degrees is not properly enclosed, making the noise from the bar below quite distracting. But, as Adams told us admonishingly, ‘The noise from the portable next door is not an excuse not to focus.’

Adams and Tangey have been performing together for years and have a great tag team approach. They keep it moving along nicely (after all, there’s a lot to get through before the end of the hour) and mix things up with character sketches, powerpoint presos and a recreation of Tangey’s Year 12 Indonesian speech on Phar Lap, complete with subtitles. Chalk and Talk is gentle comedy fare from two very likeable locals. And if you make a real effort to learn, you might be awarded with a sticker at the end.

Chuckle factor: 3/5