Comedy, News & Commentary, Stage

Sydney Comedy Festival is growing up, but its Opera House Gala lacks panache

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I often wonder who buys tickets to a Comedy Festival gala. They’re usually the most expensive tickets in a festival and, while a gala can be a lot of fun and the comedic equivalent of a tasting menu, comedians don’t usually have time to really find their groove and build any great audience rapport given such short set times. And no matter how broad your taste might be, you’re bound to find a few things that just don’t really appeal.

I think most people who buy tickets are a little bit lost: they don’t necessarily know their own hearts, but they know that they love to laugh.

The 2016 Sydney Comedy Festival gala, in the hallowed Opera House Concert Hall, featured your regular mix of high profile local and international acts, alongside up-and-comers. Hosted by Matt Okine, it was not without its high points, but ultimately fell short of the standard you’d expect from this festival.

Sydney Comedy Festival was launched 12 years ago as the Cracker Sydney Comedy Festival, and has always been closely tied to Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the third biggest in the world. While most of the acts come up to Sydney for short seasons after longer runs in Melbourne, the Festival has really grown into its own over the last few years, with its own character, attracting around 120,000 people each year.

But the gala seemed too slapdash and demonstrated a point that constantly gets raised in the comedy world, but bears repeating: men get these high-profile gigs far more often then women. Of 23 performers on stage (across 17 acts), only three were women. When three of seven Barry Award nominees in Melbourne this month were women, something seems a little off in Sydney.

It’s not just a matter of wanting something a little bit closer to parity for reasons of representation and opportunity; seeing man after man after man is eventually a little alienating and restrictive in terms of the perspectives you get to hear. I don’t want to say that it ends up a little one-note, because these are diverse talents, but given that so much of the material is actually about women (and some of it lazy and a little misogynistic), you’re left wondering where their voices are.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, local stand up veterans Felicity Ward and Anne Edmonds were amongst the standouts of the night: both delivering fast-paced, solid gold sets. Edmonds’ delivery is just so unshakeable and gutsy that even when her material doesn’t seem quite as clever as you might hope, you end up in hysterics, and Ward manages to cover something a bit heavier — mental illness and irritable bowel syndrome — in what is a very short set.

Nazeem Hussain’s material about trolls is on point, and his catch cry of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Allahu Akbar!” rang out true in the Concert Hall. And American Kyle Kinane’s set, slyly critical of his homeland, was sure to win over a local audience.

As the host, Matt Okine seemed a little underpowered to start with and took a while to get the 2000-strong audience onside. And some of the live camera work, projected onto the big screen above the stage, was pretty dodgy (by which I mean, difficult for people susceptible to motion sickness because the camera operator apparently wasn’t prepared for Aunty Donna, a very physical trio using the whole stage).

It’s a bit difficult to judge an unfamiliar comedian on the basis of just a few minutes (especially when some kick off their set with tired material about the oh-so-hilarious differences between men and women). But UK youngsters Daniel Sloss and Sarah Callaghan are both impressive. Sloss, in particular, has found a unique comedic rhythm which often slows things down and subtly subverts expectations.

This gala was really more akin to an open mic night. Sure, some comedy heavyweights showed up, but this was a show that doesn’t seem like it’s been curated or directed in any meaningful way.

It’s just not anywhere near as slick and glitzy as what Sydney audiences are used to seeing on TV each year from the Melbourne galas, and it would leave many with the impression that Sydney Comedy Festival is a second-rate festival. And that’s not at all the case: it’s a far smaller festival, but it attracts the same calibre of talent.

Next year, the gala either needs to lift its game or lower its prices ($100 to $120 seems awfully steep for this gig). Or at the very least, call itself something other than a gala.

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