From Cilla Black to Kevin the Lamb, it was a lorra lorra laughs!
It says much about the wide appeal of Bath Comedy Festival 2016 that one of the most popular ‘performances’ was that given by Kevin the bald headed lamb. But more on that cuddlesome creature later.
Seeing our esteemed director Nick Steel sweating profusely as he dashed from guiding The Wine Arts Trail’s big red bus around the secret corners of Bath to presenting Peter Richardson of Comic Strip fame with the festival’s prestigious Bath Plug Award on stage at the Little Theatre Cinema showing of Red Top, and then hot-footing it up the hill to the brand new Widcombe Social Club to introduce that night’s stunning performance of The Rise of Mighty Voice by Jess Robinson illustrates perfectly the hands-on approach the organisers apply to bringing fun and laughter to our staid and often po-faced little city.
This year, as always, the focus wasn’t limited to big starry names, though there were some pretty famous faces knocking around – Stephen Frost, Mark Watson, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Sean Hughes and Arthur Smith to name a few. The emphasis was refreshingly placed on new work, up and coming artists, quirky presentations in formerly unknown spaces, Edinburgh previews, works in progress, female performers (the festival is rightly proud of its F-rating) and, improbably, having previously mined German humour and helped to put Henning Wehn on the map, a dash of Norwegian comedy in the form of the brilliant Dag Sørås.
Whilst The Wine Arts Trail was, as usual, reassuringly expensive (and an instant sell-out), there were acts to suit all pockets, including a plethora of free and pay-what-you-feel performances featuring the likes of Nick Doody, James Dowdeswell, Stephanie Laing and Zahra Barri.
Meanwhile, the cheap, cheerful and totally delightful Kids’ Comedy programme proved to be a boon for the buggy brigade. What could be nicer than to spend an hour or so in the company of King Pumpypants and three very special princesses, namely Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel? A dream photo-op for any tiny tot. And a perfect use for the sparkling and kiddy-friendly Widcombe Social Club!
Helping to set aspiring young comics on the path to possible stardom is an important part of the festival’s ethos. After several heats played out in the relative safety of Bath Brew House’s bijou upstairs venue, a huge, expectant and it has to be said very supportive audience gathered at the Social Club for a fantastic final of the now nationally acclaimed New Act Competition. The acts included a female vicar of a certain age, a comedy trombonist and a gentleman with a nice line in self-denigration. The award was eventually presented, to deservedly tumultuous applause, to Pav Rao for an act that demonstrated superb timing and originality. He joins a gallery of watch-this-space winners who have gone on to greater things including Larry Dean, Matt Richardson and Joe Lycett.
An Arts Council assessor once accused The Wine Arts Trail, the festival’s flagship immersive event, of having not enough art and too much wine. Said rep also expressed disappointment that the alternative city tour didn’t include such famous set pieces as the Royal Crescent but instead ended up in a reclamation yard. Well, this year there was even more wine, and as well as affording the tipsy punters on the big red bus a brief sideways glance at said salubrious cres, the magical mystery ride took in a specially staged exhibition at the Bath Artists’ Studios, a participatory painting by numbers of Caravaggio’s Bacchus, a revival of a virtuoso classical music spoof by the original cast of the Natural Theatre’s 1985 show Scarlatti’s Birthday Party, who re-learnt the act in just two hours, and visit to Arthur Smith’s Sock Museum, hosted by the man himself. You can’t get artier than that.
In addition, the tour utilised the splendid Hollywood style staircase at the Hall and Woodhouse bar and restaurant (generous sponsors of the festival, we might add) for a musical number by Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Cilla et al in the astonishingly talented form of vocal impressionist Jess Robinson.
Oh, and Kevin the new-born lamb, who, starved of motherly love and warmth, huddled too near to the heat lamp and singed himself a bald pate, and who played a starring role in the Wine Trail finale at Rainbow Wood Farm, presiding as he did over the raffle draw for the giant jar of Bill Smarme’s pickled eggs. Such was his appeal his owners promised he will never be paired with a pot of mint sauce, a promise proven by the online video which shows him gambolling merrily into teenagerdom in the green fields of Combe Down.
Bath Comedy continues to entertain with some shows during Bath Fringe Festival and Edinburgh previews in July, followed by an Autumn season here in Bath, as well as further afield in Bradford on Avon and Bristol. Keep your eye on http://www.bathcomedy.com and sign up to the e-newsletter for more information.