Nic Wright

Review: Barnard Castle Comedy Festival 2015

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Pictured: Mark Watson at the first ever Barnard Castle Comedy Festival. Image by Tom Stanier.

“Some people said you couldn’t have a comedy festival in Barnard Castle; well they’ve all got red faces now.”

Mark Watson’s statement to a packed room at The Witham, during the inaugural Barnard Castle Comedy Festival certainly isn’t wrong.

The market town has enjoyed a comedy renaissance in recent years, with Funny Way To Be comedy club bringing some of the best comics in the country to audiences who’d usually have to travel a fair throw to see them.

Having hosted the likes of Russell Howard, Chris Ramsey, Russell Kane, Jo Caulfield, Gary Delaney, Jenny Éclair, Josie Long and Jason Cook to Teesdale over the past five years, a festival seems like a natural progression for the club; this weekend, that’s exactly what Barnard Castle is getting.

The all-dayer, at the recently refurbished Witham arts centre, features the kind of quality lineup the club has become known for, with a varied bill catering for both the mainstream comedy fan, and the alternative coinsures.

The festival kicks off with chaotic, kid-friendly game-show The Gunge Show. Fronted by North East comic Lee Kyle, the show sees two teams of comics face off in a series of farcical challenges, with the losing team’s captain suffering the slippery indignity of being gunged in a paddling pool. Inclusive, juvenile and engaging , the show sets a superbly entertaining tone for the day.

Things take a slightly more adult turn next, with a preview from Lost Voice Guy. Inspired by the face-palmingly dumb questions some of the general public insist on asking disabled people, BBC New Comedy Award Winner Lee Ridley faces down prejudice – and blatant idiocy – with a twisted, self-deprecating edge and withering hilarity.

Canadian maestro of absurdity Tony Law is up next, with a typically rambling display of unpredictability, flying the flag for alternative comedy.

Ultimate crowd-pleaser Jo Caulfield delights festival-goers with her chatty, grounded tales of awkward social encounters. A genial, natural storyteller with a knack for a savage punch-line, Funny Way To Be regular Caulfield makes a more-than-welcome return with her Edinburgh preview.

Eschewing the microphone in favour of pacing the floor before the audience in the packed-out hall, frequent Mock The Week guest Mark Watson follows, with a frenzied, blisteringly funny hour of self-doubt, existential angst and high-energy observations.

As if the original lineup wasn’t enough, a late-to-the-party bonus show sees circuit stalwart Craig Campbell performing in The Witham’s smaller space.

Finally, headliner Alex Horne launches into his hugely ambitious, engrossing Monsieur Butterfly show to close the night. Split into two halves, Horne makes easy work of stoking up the audience with quick-fire gags and audience games.

His second half is a warmer, more slow-burning affair, that sees Horne musing on fatherhood, his own maturity, and the consequences of the smallest of actions while constructing a Rube Goldberg machine.

One of the most inventive, hilarious and intense shows you’ll ever see, Horne keeps the laughs coming as he pieces together his contraption, hurtling toward the big payoff. An intelligent and charming performer, watching Horne turn out his jokes and engage with the audience is just as rewarding as seeing the machine in action.

A small-scale festival of a rare standard, Barnard Castle’s first comedy festival is an incontestable success, and proof that comedy really can work anywhere, when it’s done right.

Date of live review: Saturday 18 July 2015