Henry the Hoover twerking in the Tabernacle; a bare-chested comedian crowd-surfing in the woods; drag performers riding mini-cycles through a ring of fire at dusk… These were just a few of the more surreal moments of Machynlleth Comedy Festival and fringe, over the May Day holiday weekend.
The annual laughter fest – organised by out-of-towners Henry Widdicombe and Emma Butler of Little Wander – brings a big buzz to a small place. As thousands of visitors poured off the trains, locals greeted each other with: ‘Great atmosphere’, ‘Good for the town’ and ‘Going to anything?’
Granted, it is possible not to go to anything, but that seems a strange choice when comedy-club headliners and folk off the telly are milling about in skinny jeans and oblong specs, just waiting to make us chuckle in venues from the bowling club to the sweet shop.
Most of the programme was made up of one-hour solo shows, with some of the top names, including Stewart Lee, Josie Long and Arthur Smith, selling out well before the weekend. But for those of us who don’t follow the scene, taking a punt on less famous comics is all part of the fun. Inevitably, a few of them turn out to be rubbish or revolting, but overall the risk pays off.
In her brilliant one-woman play, The Way You Tell Them, Rachel Mars put comedy itself in the spotlight. She comes from a Jewish family who suffered devastating losses in the Holocaust, and has always seen it as her duty to cheer everyone up. The show pushed the audience to think about what is funny and tried to make us complicit in crossing the boundaries of good taste.
Continuing the analysis, Mark Olver presented a panel discussion on comedy, called Dancing About Architecture, in the bearpit that is the Vortex in Y Plas. The talk among his four guests was of ‘bombing’ (bad) and ‘killing’ (good), ‘callbacks’ and ‘toppers’. It was an insight into the world of the gigging comic – a world that seemed a lot less attractive when all the bad nights and motorway drives were enumerated. But when David Trent described sharing a lift in a car full of the funniest people in the country, it started to sound like fun again.
Asked about fame and fortune, the consensus was that it was crucial to stay true to your vision, writing the material that thrills you, rather than obsessively pursuing a TV appearance on 8 out of 10 Cats or Mock the Week.
Elsewhere, Nish Kumar was true to the name of his show – Nish Kumar is a Comedian – in a clever, witty hour about identity and trying to stop people vomiting on trains.
The place to be, mid-evening, was the magical open-air Woodland Pavilion, where top acts were hauled on stage to perform for ten minutes to an audience that ranged from toddlers to seniors.
Here Joe Lycett pulled his collection of the most grotesque souvenirs in the world out of a bag. Lolly Adefope embodied ‘Gemma’ on a night out with the girls from work: ‘I’m so mad, me!’ And Angela Barnes insisted that the time to do hard drugs is in old age: ‘You may not be able to afford to heat a bungalow, but you can always heat a spoon.’
A crucial part of the festival is always catching up with friends on the sofas and benches strewn across the lawns of Y Plas or Y Senedd, eating from the food stalls and supping real ale from the beer tent. But when the marquees came down on Monday, an over-stimulated Machynlleth waved the visitors farewell and had a nice lie-down.