Notes From MachFest
It’ll be a fairly quick and simple Therapy Tape this week as I’ve just got back from the Machynlleth Comedy Festival and have lots to catch up on. But I thought I’d make good use of all the inspiring and brilliant stuff I saw there by saying a little bit about the shows I saw this year, all of which are things you should seek out! If you don’t know it, Mach is widely acknowledged to be the best comedy festival in the calendar year, largely because its focus is squarely on artists making good, interesting work, without any of the media scrutiny or industry noise – reviews, awards, blah blah blah – that surrounds the bigger, more conventional festivals. I’ve performed at it twice now, and particularly enjoyed my approach this year, which involved performing a very loose work-in-progress which I have no imminent plans to turn into a finished show. It felt like the festival really rewards this approach, as it enabled me to go into the weekend with zero expectations or needs to be met by wanting my show to go well, and no compulsion to compare my experience of the festival to how everybody else seemed to be experiencing it. That sort of comparative experience is a really toxic attitude, but a hard one to avoid at places like the Edinburgh Fringe. At Mach, though, there’s a real sense that it doesn’t really matter how your show goes or what you get out of it, you’re just there to create, share, have fun and be inspired by what other people have made. I loved it, and here’s a quick rundown of the brilliant things I saw!
Adult Film Club – This is a grubby little film night recently launched by animator Sam O’Leary and the Delightful Sausage’s Chris Cantrill, in which they screen a combination of films by interesting emerging artists, and weird stuff they’ve found on the internet, although the unifying theme of their selections is that it’s all vaguely seedy or dark or weird or creepy. They showed a great range of things, including a film which caused me to weep and be unable to breathe because I was laughing too hard (see the regular “What’s Made Me Laugh The Most” section later). They run Adult Film Club regularly in Manchester, so get along to one if you like weird films!
Luke McQueen & Mark Silcox: Songs With My Father – A few years ago, one of my favourite comedians, Luke McQueen, made The Luke McQueen Pilots, a trio of supposedly failed comedy pilots for BBC Three, each with a different premise that he would then deliver on as disastrously as possible. He cast another of my favourite comedians, deadpan genius Mark Silcox, as his dad, and their adventures included a brilliant scene in which Mark was tricked into giving his own son an orgasm in a sex workshop in Amsterdam. This new show from Luke and Mark is a sort-of sequel, in which the two are trying to make a hit single so Luke can make enough money to move out. It’s absolutely joyous – anyone who’s seen Mark before will know that every effort Luke makes to impose some sort of narrative, or choreography, or structure onto the show does absolutely nothing to change Mark’s invincible “I’m not 100% sure of what I’m supposed to be doing now” aura. As someone who once also made a show pairing one comedian’s try-hard enthusiasm with another’s deadpan, shambling weirdness back when I was in a double act with Ed Aczel, it really warmed my heart to see two geniuses doing such great things in that territory. This show is an absolute mess and it was entirely delightful.
Father and son
Egg – Work-In-Progress – I’ve just had to double check what this show’s title was, and I can’t believe it was just called “Work-in-Progress,” as it very much feels like a complete piece of work, and I can only imagine how good it’ll be when it’s finished. I’d not seen Egg before, but had heard really great things about them, and I really loved this show. It’s full of very boldly characterised, sharply written, brilliantly performed sketches but, like the best sketch comedy shows, it’s also an exploration of an idea and a theme that’s expressed in the relationship between the performers. I won’t spoil its narrative, as I think it’s a really well-made show that it’s worth discovering for yourself, but it’s essentially about returning to live performance post-pandemic and looking at how the intervening time has shifted your relationship to what you do, and to the people you care about. Highlights include Anna Leong Brophy’s misguided attempt to talk to an audience member, and Emily Lloyd-Saini’s ridiculous performance as Auntie Pam. Highly recommend catching this show in Edinburgh this year.
Cerys Bradley – Not Overthinking Things 2019 – I had the pride and privilege of directing Cerys’s debut show Sportsperson last year, a really fun exploration of team sports and identity that ended up winning the Autistic Excellence Award, and was really glad to see what Cerys has been working up for their second show (I’m not working on Fringe stuff this year as I’m breaking the model for myself a little bit). This new show is about meanness and reconciling with past trauma via a game of pass the parcel. It’s exciting to see all the strengths and virtues of Sportsperson still present and correct in this show, while also seeing Cerys flex new muscles in terms of performance and theatricality (there’s some delightful clowning and nonsense with costume, and their work with Elf Lyons as director this year has opened up some really exciting new avenues of creativity). This show will be great!
Sean Morley Has Been Banned From This Year’s Festival – Sean Morley is another of my all-time favourite comedians, and I don’t get to see his live work very often these days as he now lives in Amsterdam. What a delight, then, to catch this show, which he claims he will never perform again. Sean is a master of just presenting an audience with a conceit, and then meaningfully engaging with whatever it is they make of the conceit, without ever losing the upper hand. This show had as its starting point the idea that Sean had been banned from Machynlleth (for stealing his jokes from ChatGPT and then threatening Tony Blair with a gun) and that by coming to see his show en masse we had drawn attention to him, and would now have to collectively come up with an alibi if the police turned up. Sean’s command of audience/performer dynamics is incredibly impressive – no matter what anyone says or does with the concepts he presents to them, he is consistently able to out-think them and surprise them. That he uses this potentially devastatingly evil power only to further the cause of dumb, stupid nonsense is to be applauded. Props also to Ben Alborough for his excellent cameo as Detective Manhattan Brooklyn Queens The Bronx.
And that’s all I managed to see this year! Some will definitely happen again, either in Edinburgh or in Manchester (Egg, Cerys, Adult Film Club), some might happen again, but God knows in what form (Luke & Mark), some will apparently never be seen again (Sean), but I was inspired and excited by them all and so glad this festival exists to shine a light on brilliant creative work without all the industry stress that so often accompanies it. Here’s to more Machs in future!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I was lucky enough to get to attend the Aria Awards this week as part of Rosie Holt and Lead Mojo’s NonCensored podcast, on which I occasionally guest, filling all their “centrist drip” roles. We didn’t win, sadly, but there were awards for Rob Delaney, the Skewer and Romesh Ranganathan, so big congrats to all the winners! You can read more about them here.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This weird little film was screened at Adult Film Club in Mach, and, as I mentioned above, there’s a sequence within it that caused me to become breathless and tearful with laughter, which I’ve not experienced in ages. It completely short-circuited my brain. I’ve since shown it to people who said it wasn’t very funny, but oh my God, it got me.
Book Of The Week – I found a copy of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry on a park bench, with a sticker explaining it had been left there by “the book fairies.” “That’s nice,” I thought, “and there’s a film of it out, it feels like serendipity, I should read it.” Then when I opened it I found a photocopied letter from Rachel Joyce explaining that the books were being left around the country and if I liked it I should see the film. I had not been visited by a kindly book fairy, I had been taken in by a cynical marketing ploy! I was, and remain, furious. Nice book so far, though.
Album Of The Week – First Two Pages Of Frankenstein by the National. This is their new one, and it’s fine. I read a review claiming they’ve become a parody act, which is a bit harsh. They’ve definitely been on a decline since Sleep Well Beast, but hey, it’s not necessarily a great failing that their new stuff isn’t as good as their really good old stuff. Nobody’s great forever, and this new album is kind of nice.
Film Of The Week – Suzume. This is a new anime from the director of the brilliant Your Name, Makoto Shinkai. It’s not as simple or brilliant as Your Name, and the mythology of it is a bit convoluted and confusing, but it’s still a really brilliant fantasy adventure that ties the trauma of the 2011 Japanese tsunami into a grand mythic narrative of good vs evil, and there’s a lot to love about it.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter, please feel free to send it on to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s a skeleton I met in Machynlleth: