COMEDY REVIEW: Hilarity Bites / Darlington Comedy Festival (6.7.16 – 30.7.16) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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For as long as I can remember comedy promoters, Hilarity Bites have been the gem in Darlington’s cultural crown. If I am ever looking for something to do then I can guarantee that Neil Jollie and co are putting on a comedy gig of the highest quality somewhere in town (and surrounding areas) that week. The highlight of their busy calendar is the Darlington Comedy Festival, now in its fifth year, bringing a plethora of comedians into the town. Throughout the month of July, I checked out a handful of the festival’s many shows.

First up on July 6th at Seen was a joint affair, namely Seymour Mace and Andrew Ryan. Both were practising their sets, like many others, in the run up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Hailing from Southern Ireland, Andrew Ryan kicked off the set with a few Brexit digs before delving into his new show entitled Ruined; which looked at his destructive personality and habit of catastrophizing situations. The show was anecdotal and discussed his childhood, in particular his time at private school where his class clowning resulted in being stuck on the school roof. Other stories included his experience with coeliac disease and a very amusing conclusion involving a missing child on the beach. Considering it was warm-up show I thought the material was tight, occasionally Andrew broke from the routine to discuss the Wales vs Portugal game or to reference the occasional bit of material he wouldn’t take to the fringe, but that alongside the material and personable delivery drew you into a very funny set.

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Seymour Mace was a completely different type of act and as an Edinburgh Comedy Award Nominee last year, I was expecting big things. Somehow I had never seen the mohicaned Geordie geezer perform previously but from the off I knew it was right up my street. His new show Sh!t Title was fantastically surreal and silly with a sense of occasion like a mix of Vic Reeves Big Night Out and Andy Kaufman’s TV specials. It was geared for Edinburgh and so we had to imagine that the start of the show we were just walking in to him pretending to play a pretend piano, which he struggled with as the table they provided with was too small. Scattered around the stage were props which he worked his way through, shouting to the soundguy key presses to provide musical accompaniment with each sketch. He’d strip on stage and get changed to become a variety of characters. He had an ‘old versus young’ gameshow, which he dressed up as a Bruce Forsyth-esque host. I was pleased at 32 years of age to be picked to represent the youth but sadly did not win one of his creepy selection of prizes due to the quiz being rigged to show up the younger generation as knowing nothing.

Other highlights were his ridiculous character ‘mannequin hands’ and his dating sketch where a member of the audience was treated to a musical serenade that ended in something that had men in the audience crossing their legs. The only criticism would be it didn’t flow at times due to specific gags being designed for the Fringe venue, meaning he’d have to explain the scenario before taking part and also it was a bit stop start preparing each sketch but that was expected from a preview show and no doubt would be slicker operation in time.

An enjoyable blend of stupidity, fun and crowd participation that left me with a childlike grin and sense of mischief.

Continuing with the weird and wonderful was Tony Law on July 13th at Seen with his booming, jolly presence that reminded me of Brian Blessed, albeit with a Canadian accent. Clad in a jumpsuit complete with gaffer tape around the stomach to make him ‘look thinner’. He was doing two forty five minute sets which seemed impressive but actually for someone who constantly goes off at a tangent pretty much every couple of minutes it appeared quite effortless. He talked about taking his dog stargazing, inventing ribbon dancing, driving his badly designed Fiat car, his sobriety and his lizard skinned bear friend but then stopping to question really obscure things or to reminisce past events that happened throughout various points in history like when he was an Olympic trampoliner in the 70s. Did I mention he could travel through time?

It was all very random and I’m sure some of it was off the cuff but as the set progressed, previous abstract remarks would be re-referenced and turn out to be relevant to the overall story as it all eventually came together to reveal the meaning of life, which I won’t spoil for you.

Overall it took a while for him to pick up pace but I felt he improved as the set went on. Tony’s zaniness and unpredictability was at times mentally exhausting but he’s a loveable, hairy character whose impressive quick thinking and delivery means you are kept on your toes and as a result never bored.

I took my nephew to what turned out to be my favourite event of the festival on July 23rd – The Hilarity Bites Kids Comedy Club at the Darlington Library was busy with children of all ages and their parents who were hoping for good, educational fun.

Lee Kyle was an ideal host for the event. His mixture of over the top slapstick and interactions with a soft toy parrot puppet who attacked him and a blue bear who he pretended a girl at the front fancied, were ridiculous but whipped the kids up into a frenzy. He told them that this was not school and then got them to tell their parents that they weren’t going to do as they were told. He also promised them that they could have two beers once the show had finished.

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Mike Milligan was up next and his mix of poo jokes (e.g. what’s blue and white and brown inside? A poo in a Tesco bag), his bad-mouthing of the parents (including myself) and his references to Brexit and Thatcher that made for an interesting but enjoyable set. Lee came to tell Mike that he wasn’t supposed to say rude words before reeling off a list of naughty words to everyone’s delight.

The dark and weird comedy of Nicola Mantalios-Lovett was last up and began with her walking around giving children books off a trolley (my nephew got one about Yom Kippur to his bemusement) before handing a large pile of the what remained to a poor old lady down the front old and then disappearing under a table, pulling the tablecloth and more books on the floor in the process. She gave two volunteers a round of ‘would you rather’ questions that they had to pick one answer of two options. For me there was no better moment in the festival than watching a 6 year old girl panicking as she can’t decide whether she would rather eat her own sick or sniff her dad’s bum.

A tremendous show that reminded me of all the rude, crude humour of the Roald Dahl books displayed around the library. My nephew enjoyed it and so as promised, we headed to the nearest Wetherspoons so he could enjoy a couple of pints.

BBC New Comedy Award finalist Pete Otway and winner Steve Bugeja were at The Keys on July 26th for my penultimate show of the festival. Steve Bugeja was on first and seemed a neurotic and likeable character. His show was called Unpronouncable and used his strange name as a starting point, which at first didn’t really grab me. Maybe I was a little slow-witted or maybe he took a while to get into it but once he started to progress into his material about the head versus the heart, the laughs started to come. It discussed the drives of the human race and how they were controlled for the sake of society and this somehow tied into really sweet memories of his grandparents and a love story that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Richard Curtis film. It was one of the more fluid performances I saw throughout the festival, it was well written and made you think whilst tugging at the heartstrings.

Pete Otway seemed a little less familiar with his material and frequently glanced at his book of notes, which he joked about having to learn with the Edinburgh Fringe approaching. His set, like Steve’s, contained a love story as the undercurrent to his material. It discussed the breakup and eventual reunion with his girlfriend, why his mental state was partly to blame and how he dealt with it. There were some dark but laugh out loud stories about the man he shared a room with growing up, nearly killing his friends and frequent thoughts of wanting to stab people. The two acts worked really well on the same bill and will no doubt go down a storm at Edinburgh.

The final show was the Hilarity Bites Coffee Morning at Hash on July 30th. It’s a really informal affair led by Andy Fury who basically just makes coffee for the audience whilst ripping the piss out of them or telling one of his funny tales relating to his love life or Mormon upbringing. The main target was Tony, comedy regular and Brexit voter whose Kyren T-shirt was violated along with his political beliefs. Seems cruel but it was actually really funny.

There was also an Andy Fury board game where two contestants had to answer questions about his life to be the first to make it round the board. There were plenty of prizes to be won including a pack of 5 fly swatters, One Direction shoelaces and a copy of Mein Kampf. I came away with a Levellers Live In Concert DVD. Not a bad haul for a free show.

Overall the festival was well-run with some high quality acts. The entry fees are really cheap (some shows are free) and perfect for those who enjoy comedy but can’t afford/attend the Edinburgh Fringe festival. There were a load of shows that I couldn’t make that I’d loved to have attended (Patrick Monahan, Diane Spencer, Tom Binns, etc) and I really enjoyed the annual Hilarity Bites New Act Competition, which I randomly entered only to end up in the final, but that is a story for another time… For now I’d like to say well done to Hilarity Bites for putting smiles on the faces of Darlington and I look forward to next year’s event.

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