We need a new kind of comedy, says character comic President Obonjo, “a comedy where you wake up the next morning and ask, ‘what the fuck did I just see?!’” If he’s right, then where better to look for it than the Leicester comedy festival? The country’s second biggest comedy knees-up assembles a wide array of performing talent, many of them warming up for the country’s biggest such event in August, and many just having fun. Obonjo, a faux African dictator resident in Hertfordshire, is one such, but on any given evening you can select from scores of possibilities.
I caught a handful of shows on Friday night: in a bar’s basement, in a restaurant, in a cinema. Sounds like the Edinburgh fringe, right? Well, yes and no. There’s no sense in Leicester of a city given over to performance. Crowds, posters, street acts, buzz – these are conspicuous by their absence, and the shows I see are modestly attended. (As is often the case in Edinburgh too.) But I did emerge with a bracing sense of the quality, and healthy diversity, of the comedy scene. I saw three engaging shows, all marching to the beat of their own drum, not one remotely like the others – or much like anything you’ll have seen before.
Lily Phillips’ work-in-progress Stitches was the most conventional, a standup show in development about her recent experience of pregnancy, birth and new motherhood. I can’t claim it as a bold new leap for comedy, given related recent sets by Josie Long, say, or a heavily pregnant Janine Harouni last year. But Phillips brings a jagged new perspective to the subject with her focus on, and frankness about, the downsides. “The whole experience is horrible,” she states. Latterly, the entire show is retrofitted – in a throwaway aside – as an account of post-natal depression.
Stitches still has a distance to travel: this is its first live outing, and Phillips – when not bouncing childbirth horror stories around with the women in the crowd – reads the jokes from her notes. But it feels like something special is brewing, that fronts up about the upheaval, sacrifice and overwhelm of new motherhood without stinting on the funny, that rages against the lies we tell ourselves about this life-stage while delivering gags about Jon Snow and whales’ vaginas with embattled good cheer.
Who knows what’s brewing at President Obonjo’s show, above a Keralan restaurant on Granby Street? Revolution, perhaps? Benjamin Bello has been performing as dictator (beret; military fatigues; wild eyes) of the so-called Lafta Republic for over a decade, but only recently went viral. Last year, his online video decrying the legal hounding of Donald Trump was assumed by some US viewers to come from a real African president, and Reuters was moved to issue a clarification. The same confusion, between character and performer, is at play onstage, and not always productively. The pretence, that Bello is the son of Idi Amin and made in his image, is forever being undermined by his admission that he’s just a jobbing comedian from St Albans.
Nothing wrong with complicating fact and fiction, but it’s a bit all over the place here, in a show, African Zelensky, that draws on comparisons between Obonjo and the Ukrainian comic-turned-politician. Our host volunteers some confusing commentary on Russia v Ukraine, and indeed on UK politics, and the jokes aren’t easy to discern. But to its credit, the show takes on some big subjects – “Black wars matter” and pan-Africanism, among others – and Bello is a compelling presence onstage, now bellowing orders at his audience (“if you’re not laughing, it’s because you’re frightened”), now chuckling infectiously at his own ridiculousness. It scores highly on the “What the fuck did I just see?” scale, at least.
The same might be said of Foxdog Studios, the cult gaming-meets-comedy mashup performed somewhere between the stage and the screen of your smartphone. Programmers turned comics Lloyd Henning and Peter Sutton are our deadpan hosts, whose series of games and interactive stunts, here entitled Robo Bingo, welds analogue and digital tech to maximum eccentric amusement. The audience plays bingo together, and Space Invaders – with wallabies for aliens – on an upstage screen. One of us steers an avatar around a simulated Isle of Man. We have to identify species of frog by the croaking piped at us from our devices.
It could scarcely be less meaningful: proceedings end with the audience remote-controlling a papier-mache robot into an elevator to put its amphibian baby to bed. But as Pete and Lloyd perambulate the room with iPhones taped to their heads, the lo-fi tech wizardry is ingenious, and it’s irresistible fun to play along – making for a satisfying end to my Leicester comedy festival evening.
Or so I thought. I no sooner took my seat in the pub at the end of the night than more comedians began spilling out of the room downstairs. If the heady comedy festival vibe had proven elusive until then, the unsought presence of an improv show beneath my feet, an hour before midnight, gave me a powerful late hit of it.
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