Oxford Comedy Festival: Kate Smurthwaite & Jen Brister, Tap Social Movement, 29th July 2019
Last night marked the last show for QED Comedy Lab's big summer project, a month-long series of previews for the very best acts winding their way up to the Edinburgh Fringe. With over 50 comedians across the last four weeks, Oxford Comedy Festival is a sprawlingly mad undertaking, and one that has consistently pulled off exceptional bookings, picking the very finest stand-up comedians on the scene. Last night was no exception, with a pair of acts that managed to balance a justified rage at the state of things with a fabulous hit rate in their material that produced chortles, guffaws and all-out belly laughs.
First up was Kate Smurthwaite, a comedian and activist who has appeared on the likes of Question Time, This Morning and Newsnight. She'd picked Oxford for her only preview of her new show Bitch, one that sometimes meandered but was often funny and packed a terrific emotional kick. Her set was about owning the abuse she received as a product of her human rights campaigns. Baked into this was a difficult relationship with her father (the first person to call her the eponymous insult) and her polyamorous love life. The show was at its funniest when she was recounting her dating entanglements (including a particularly amusing anecdote about a date's experience with a paddling pool and red goo in the bedroom), but Kate was an engaging performer throughout.
There was a heartbreaking quality to the show, with Kate early on recounting one of the incidences of abuse she'd received, to the audience's growing dismay. There's a lot to unpack in Kate's show, as it moves from topic to topic. And yet it feels close to transformative, with Kate carefully unpacking her persona and giving audiences a glimpse of the individual underneath. When Bitch wasn't making us laugh it was giving us much to dwell on.
After a short break, we were treated to a superb hour of comedy from Jen Brister. A slick comedic tour de force, Jen deconstructs life as a happily married mother of twin boys and the privilege that she feels every day. Packed with hilarious anecdotes about parenting young boys (and there is nothing that makes me laugh harder than jokes on the struggles of parenting - as I am a father of an 'assertive' three year old) as well as the fear of what kind of individual these boys will become ('one's a chauvinist, the other's a misogynist'), Under Privilege shows why Jen has become such a highly rated comedian.
Contorting her face and voice (her Toby Young was wonderfully vile), Jen is a terrific performer, and her show propels along at a furious pace. Routine after routine lands and she's gleaned a slickness that makes her poised to once again make a big slash at the Edinburgh Fringe. To see her show so fully formed feels like a treat for this epic festival finale.
This sold-out evening of comedy was the perfect climax for the Oxford Comedy Festival. The acts they've curated (at least the six I've seen) have each been exceptional comedians, unafraid to address difficult subjects without losing the ability to make the audience laugh. QED Comedy must also be applauded for putting together a wonderfully diverse line-up, something that other providers of comedy are often unable to do. The comedy I saw was simply better because it elevated voices that in the past have not received such a platform. Oxford Comedy Festival is a bonkers undertaking but one enhanced by an ability to be one of the most modern, exciting arts festivals on the Oxford scene. Bring on 2020!