Oxford Comedy Festival 2023

Comedy festival where 54 acts preview their comedy sets.
Venues across Oxford, Sat 1 July - Mon 31 July 2023

October 24, 2023
Burgarmeister - Burgar brings polish and punnery to her debut show

Oxford Comedy Festival always brings out a series of welcome surprises. Tonight that came in the form of Alex Burgar’s ‘Burgarmeister’. Burgar isn't the first to have found their comedic voice whilst at Oxford, with Josie Long, Deborah Francis-White and Victoria Coren Mitchell all sharing the same alma mater. Whilst this is an impressive list to aspire to, tonight Burgar manages to weave together a story of identity with puns that deserve a degree of their own. Suffice to say she more than earns a space among that collection of noteworthy comics.

I won’t lie, I’m a sucker for a good pun, which is just as well because tonight they’re woven throughout the set with more precision than an Olympic slalom skier. That is to say at times if you blink you’re likely to miss them, and at others the groans fill the room. Nevertheless, Burgar also managed to balance this with a story of longing and belonging, and an exploration of what it means to choose (or not choose) an identity.

Like the title of the show, Burgar manages to hold the crowd with an authority not often seen in a debut hour. It’s polished, well-paced, and contains enough depth to keep you invested in the story, coupled with enough laughs to leave your sides hurting. Whilst Liz Truss might be a pertinent reminder that not everything that comes out of Oxford is brilliant, like all good burgers the show relishes (groan) in the combination of simplicity with a modern twist that makes for a performance that’s crisper than the lettuce that outlasted Liz.

July 25, 2023
Alison Spittle: Soup and Nathan D'Arcy: Present/Tense

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.

July 11, 2023
Louise Atkinson ‘Mates’ and William Stone ‘Low-Fi Jokes to Relax/Study To’

The festival continues, with two great - but very different - acts, taking the mic at White House by Tap Social on Sunday night.

First up, we had Louise Atkinson, whose show Mates focused on all aspects of friendships, from the casual work acquaintance to the friend who’d help you bury a body. The show was framed around a conversation that took place in Atkinson’s (precious) car, while her best friend ate a precariously messy kebab (you can guess how this ends).

Atkinson’s comedic style could be described as gobby exasperation.You get the feeling she herself would be the type of friend who you’d turn to for a reaction when someone said something ridiculous. There was an unflagging warmth underpinning her performance, and this chumminess married very well with the material. As with any fringe preview, some bits of the set landed better than others, but Atkinson’s ability to roll with the punches minimised any awkwardness. The set takes us on a sort of topography of friendship itself, from the practical ways men form bonds, to the almost military-style precision with which a group of women, previously strangers, will comfort a crying girl in a club loo.

There are fun tangents about unqualified TikTok therapists, shouting a word in Greece that held a very different meaning locally, and why we should be investing in our friendships like we do our romances. The individual jokes are good, but what elevates the show is Atkinson’s polished structuring - there are callbacks and clever use of the framing device in the emotional climax, and just the right amount of time spent on digressions. I expect to see the show do very well next month.

The second half of the evening gave us William Stone and his perfectly titled Low-Fi Jokes to Relax/Study To. This set started at 9pm, so it was dusk outside and the lamp-lit venue had turned golden and cosy. Stone took to the stage brandishing a guitar, softly strumming a melodic tune. He warned us right at the start of the act: this is not a show with an overarching story or themes; instead his aim is to create a relaxing oasis amongst the hustle and bustle of the Fringe. And also you know, tell some jokes. And that is exactly what he then succeeds in doing.

Stone is a droll comedian, consistently soft-spoken, which forces the audience to lean in, further adding to the snug, conspiratorial atmosphere. His jokes are a steady procession of very clever one or two-liners, delivered as casual ponderings or offhand remarks. It’s like the stand up equivalent of reading a very funny thread of messages online - both chilled and hilarious. It feels almost retro nowadays for a comedy set to simply consist of a comedy telling standalone jokes, but Stone’s delivery and word choice made it a real gem of a show, not to be missed.

July 4, 2023
Louise Young and Tom Little at The White House by Tap Social

On Sunday night, I made my way to The White House by Tap Social, where upstairs, the second night of the Oxford Comedy Festival would be taking place, this time featuring Louise Young’s show Feral and Tom Little’s The Reliably Funny Comedian You Want to See. It was a real treat to see such a contrasting yet oddly well-balanced double act.

First up was the Newcastle-born and-raised comedian Young, whose cheerful and unassuming energy and cosy Geordie accent were the icing sweetening a cake of harrowing material, about growing up in a rough area, partying uncontrollably, and careening from one mental health crisis to the next. There were some snappy one-liners (‘I quit smoking at age twelve - I did it for the right reasons! It was for the baby’) but mostly the humour came from a sense of giddy discomfort. Young is an instantly likeable presence and there’s a subtle undercurrent of triumph in her telling these stories with so much good humour. In addition to mental illness and partying, the show focused on class mobility and life as a lesbian woman (‘I’m a Gaylord’ Young said sweetly, announcing an uphill battle to bring the term back). Despite its heavy themes, the hour was feel-good and easygoing, the only distraction from this was Young asking the audience perhaps one too many times if we were enjoying the material and reminding us that this was a preview and a work in progress. This felt like Young was not entirely confident in her set when in reality she should’ve been.

Next up, was Tom Little, who rushed to the stage so swiftly he knocked into a lamp on his way. A boyish thirty-something, his energy was like a young Jess Eisenberg if he was almost incoherently dosed up on speed. He talked extremely fast and left a string of half-finished vowels between sentences, like a cross between an awkward teenage boy and an auctioneer. At the start of his set, this felt exhaustingly intense, but quickly the relentlessness of his delivery won me over. He exuded jitters, but there was something oddly endearing about his nerves - it didn’t seem like he was particularly worried we wouldn’t like him, so much as just generically anxious about everything. I guess what made that charming was it took the pressure off us, the audience, to reassure him.

His anecdotes were less focused on grand themes and more elaborate extrapolations of pedestrian moments - like spitefully eating a dish of brown sauce on its own after paying an egregious amount (60p) for it or booking a room in a hostel to save money, then getting upgraded to a private room, which turns out to just be a regular multi-bunk room, which then turns out not to be private after all, and all of which then turns out to have been a dream. Evidently, the jokes were in the telling with these anecdotes, which tended to swirl in surreality.

There was also a delightful bit where he spoofs a rom-com plot involving two competing gingerbread businesses and several hilarious offhand lines along the way.

While in some ways, I think the two shows should have swapped titles, both were consistently enjoyable and made for an entertaining evening. I look forward to further Oxford Comedy Festival events.

July 4, 2023
Tatty MacLeod and Jessica Fostekew, Tap Social Movement

One of the great qualities of watching stand-up is that it is a medium that feels alive and works can shift in front of your eyes as they respond to the atmosphere in the room. This feels a quality highlighted by the first Monday in this year’s Oxford Comedy Festival, with sets from Tatty MacLeod and Jessica Fostekew, the pair making a fascinating duo for the evening.

Tatty MacLeod is up first, bounding on stage for a tight and well rehearsed set. Tatty is a compelling and often charming performer, one has achieved success on Tiktok (it’s notable that both acts tonight are perhaps more familiar to audiences for their work outside of stand-up). Her set is built around the cultural hodge podge of Tatty’s upbringing (she’s British but spent much of her childhood living in France) and the internal conflict this has caused. When Fugue really works is when its central figure focuses in on her personal experience. We feel invited into Tatty’s world and it rewards the show with some delightfully interesting material.

What lets Tatty down is that live element. The rehearsed aspect of this routine makes it feel somewhat rigid. Even the audience interaction feels guarded and led to preordained beats of the show. Tatty feels thrown at times by both an occasionally unruly microphone and audience members getting up to retrieve pizza from outside the Tap Social (top audience tip – if you’re going to have to get food, please don’t sit in the front row). An increasing air of frustration comes from the stage, heightened by each interruption. It’s a shame that this work feels so fixed at times as when audiences are let in on Tatty’s own story this is an hour that reaches for comedic greatness.

After a brief break for refreshments, we get one of the most gloriously chaotic hours of comedy I’ve seen in a while. This is not the first time Jessica Fostekew has performed at the Oxford Comedy Festival and her return is wonderful, as we see the beginning of the creation of a new hour of comedy. Having been delayed by traffic, Jessica arrives just as the head of the festival is explaining the performer’s current absence. Jessica arrives to the stage charmingly flustered, practically fizzing with energy.

What we get next is an Eton Mess of half-formed ideas, a chaotic but utterly scrumptious treat, build off fabulous chemistry between performer and audience. The interactions with us feel natural (and we all learn a new way to swim because of it) and this is closer to spending an hour with a dear friend. Imagine-it-rhymes-with-Ench lacked a strong connecting theme or any polish but it came with warmth and heart, charming anecdotes and a performer in their element. I adored returning to Jessica Fostekew, a perfect mix of disorder and brilliance.

The Oxford Comedy Festival continues for the rest of July and darn right I’ll be back for some more joy and gentle anarchy.

July 3, 2023
Celya AB and Rachel Fairburn, Trinity College

Over the last few years, the Oxford Comedy Festival has become a firm fixture on Oxford’s calendar. The festival’s a slice of the Edinburgh Fringe without all the hullabaloo that comes with it. Two hour long stand-up sets a night, across the month of July, with QED Comedy taking over a handful of venues in Oxford. Audiences get skilled comedians at a reduced cost, and said performers get an opportunity to tweak and rehearse sets in front of an eager audience. And here it is, back for another year and this reviewer could not be happier.

Our opening pair are Celya AB and Rachel Fairburn, working through their forthcoming hour of comedy. Each bring a different energy to their sets, the contrast playing nicely between them. We begin with Celya, whose sophomore work, Second Rodeo, is born out of the comedian’s desire as a child to become an adult. There’s a rich core here, as a charming, confident performer weaves anecdotes into her work. Stand-outs include a problematic crush on her older brother’s friend and a school based-racketing ring to sell ill-gotten baked treats. If at times there are some divergences away from them, Celya is capable enough to bring things back to the show’s centre. The comedian’s patter with the audience is light but friendly and amusing, a slight awkward tinge to her routine increasing the likeability here. Warm and approachable, Celya’s show is bound to be a festival hit.

After a brief break, Rachel Fairburn was up next and was a markedly different performer. Starting with her hate for air-fryers, the comedian built up a spiky, rollickingly funny hour, at times abrasive but always extremely funny. Fairburn wields a biting wit and feels a slightly argumentative presence for the audience. Having told us that air fryer owners belong in hell (for their devotion to the much-talked about kitchen utensil) she asked all newcomers if they had one. But there is heart and warmth to Rachel as a performer, mining her history for loving anecdotes concerning her grandparents. Even when an audience member can feel her wrath (as I did for laughing a tad too hard at a terrible birthday card), Rachel can turn things in a split second as she surged into complementing my t-shirt. It’s a good sign of a comedy set if your sides hurt by the end of it, and the ache in my ribs after each of these hours shows the strength of our Saturday night's entertainment.

It’s fair to say that one should not expect polish and both comedians asked if we knew what a work-in-progress is. They paused, checked notes and gave themselves on the spot feedback for their recordings. But it all feels charmingly human, making Celya and Rachel far more approachable then they otherwise might have been. Both routines have ideas and the roots of a connecting theme that one can see becoming more pronounced as the shows take shape. It was a delight to see these works at the early, raw stages, a sparky energy gained that a slicker show could potentially lose.

The opening night of the Oxford Comedy Festival was a towering success, powered by the remarkable talent of its comedic duo. To turn our setting (in this instance the sleek splendour of Trinity College) into a proto-Fringe venue, powered by waves of laughter, is in itself a kind of magic. I look forward to the 50 or so performers that will journey to Oxford in the month of July.

Oh, and a shout out to the bar for selling Lilt by the can. What a joy to have this much missed drink back for the briefest of moments.

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