The latest acts to grace the White House stage as part of the Oxford Comedy Festival were comedians Alison Spittle with her wide-ranging show Soup, and Nathan D’arcy, with his brilliantly spiky set Present/Tense.
Alison bounded on stage fully on-topic, gushing about her love of soup, the way she enjoys it (drinking, not eating) and doing some crowd work to determine what the audience’s ‘soup style’ is based on their favourite flavour. This was followed by a delightful bit about joining a soup appreciation WhatsApp group, 60 connoisseurs strong, with a tyrannical leader who booted out anyone who rocked the boat, including a celebrity.
The theme of soup was dropped somewhat swiftly, however, as the show sprawled into more general anecdotes about standing out and getting into sticky situations, including one wince-inducing bit involving a speculum. Her sisters featured heavily: whether she was critiquing one’s job as an aesthetician, her pre-teen sister attempting to defend her against online trolls, or another sister downing a bottle of vodka pre-clubbing and Spittle attempting to convince the security guards that she was still fit to enter the building, her siblings provided a wellspring of amusing material.
The show was at its strongest when the material was self-reflective - ‘I sort of wait for other people to get offended on my behalf before I get offended’ Spittle says at one point, producing a knowing laugh in the audience. The delivery is at times a bit rushed and muted, and I would have loved more of a soupy through-line, but the bones of the show were strong, and I found myself laughing throughout.
The second half of the evening introduced us to the irresistibly charming Nathan D’Arcy, whose show covered the solemn topics of racism and identity and toxic masculinity, somehow making them riotously funny. The effect was less ‘raw’ - as so much personally revealing material is called - and more perfectly prepared.
There’s a breezy showmanship to D’Arcy’s delivery, even the more outrageous bits, that felt like it freed the audience from having to be reassuring - rare in a preview show. It felt very polished but never remote. His timing was excellent and the show was structured so most of the jokes swung back to a delightful callback later.
One thing I particularly appreciated was how he links individual sets of jokes into larger stories. At one point, he turns a bit about how he believes all convenience stores are drug fronts into a bit about getting high with his friends in his early twenties and happening to see his estranged father featured in a BBC program on addiction, and his white friends well-meaning but unhelpful reactions.
D’Arcy, who is in his thirties but comes across as wiry and boyish in both appearance and delivery, captures that millennial feeling of perpetual youth, being stubbornly adrift. The show was sort of like watching a coming-of-age film of 2.0 speed, except much, much funnier.
It was both profound and deeply cheeky, and probably the best thing I’ve seen at the Comedy Festival so far.