Sam Campbell, Companion ★★★★★
Victoria Hotel until April 24
Remember when you had stomach muscles? Fifty-five minutes spent in this lunatic’s company will leave your mid-section as ripped as Bailey Smith. Sydney’s comedy savant Sam Campbell lets us climb up into another mezzanine of his mind in a wild show that doesn’t let up for a moment.
Five stars: comedian Sam Campbell
Tonight, he has a lively crowd buckling over bits on his fans (“incels and graphic designers”), deep fakes (a recurring theme in his acutely judged/edited video packages), Bratz Dolls, Officeworks employees and questionable COVID “safe” protocols.
Campbell’s face is in a perpetual state of gnarled bliss, knowing he has punchline after wrongfooting punchline to throw his crowd literally sideways. The former Barry Award winner teases out laughs from anti-comedy sketches on jagged biscuit crumbs which would fail in anyone else’s hands.
Campbell even gets the chocolates with a riff on Ferrero Rocher: “What a classy little number.” Prepare yourself for the best Al Gore pun of the festival, in his hands it elevates from a solid joke to Face of God stuff.
Simply, if you enjoy laughing, forgetting the outside world and refining your rig, put Companion at the top of your list. Mikey Cahill
Ben Russell & Maggie Looke, Ultimate Hollywood Tours ★★★★½
Cnr Howey Place and Little Collins St, until April 24
The first thing to know about Ultimate Hollywood Tours is that the show is barely about Hollywood and it’s not really a tour. It’s part-improvised absurdist theatre and it is unlike anything even the most seasoned festival-goer will have seen before.
The “audience” meet on the corner of an alleyway and are given headphones through which pipes a fake Californian radio station, sporadic sound effects – expertly deployed (or withheld) by Maggie Looke – and the voice of comedian Ben Russell.
Beginning as a tour guide, Russell transforms into several characters throughout the evening including a Streisand-like doyenne of comedy, a brothel owner and a failed French director. Russell has memorised whole sections of dialogue to create a story that unites these characters, but there is always room for jokes, riffing on recent events or engaging passersby, without ever letting the pace flag or leaving gaps between the laughs.
Sketch comedy – Ultimate Hollywood Tours
Even when Russell is demanding the audience step over an invisible barrier to walk onto an LA freeway yelling over the sound of passing cars, “you’ve got to obey the laws of whatever the f–k this is”, we all know, and are on board with, whatever the f–k this is. Andy Hazel
Rosie Piper, Goddess ★★★★½
Mantra on Russell until April 24
Poignant, mirthful and captivating – Goddess is a sensational hour.
Piper, who spent her first 28 years identifying as a male, weaves a web of her prior life, the epiphany that led to her transition to female, and both the trials and gratifications that now encompasses.
For the uninitiated, she provides an info lecture of the various acronyms that now consume her life: such as MTF (male to female), GRS (gender reassignment surgery) and DRS (decision review system – a dispute resolution mechanism in cricket that she employs masterfully to explain her transition).
Rosie Piper is back on the stage.Credit:Wolter Peeters
There’s some material that may at first seem middle of the road, such as an Uber Eats obsession, however a dark heel-turn that flips the script on many previous quips to present them in a damning new light is deftly handled.
Tonight she performed to a dozen people. It’ll be a crime if the room isn’t full by the end of her run. Tyson Wray
Arj Barker, Power Hour ★★★★½
Atheneum until April 24
Arj Barker promises all kill and no fill, and with a punchy hour of gripping musings, he delivers.
Having notched up three decades in comedy, he meanders across stage with ease, his expressive face and maniacal eyes adding to the fun.
This polished comic dissects health trends before launching into an uproariously witty definition of gluten. And it’s time well spent pondering our fascination with Bunnings
Brace for an excruciatingly detailed description of laser eye surgery. A deep dive into Byron Bay, a smattering of political digs, pandemic references and thoughts on anti-vaxxers also titillate.
Being such a pro, a near-preachy sales pitch for his ridiculous merchandise manages to keep the laughs flowing. Yeah, sure Arj, sell me that DVD I can’t play at home. Donna Demaio
Fern Brady, Autistic Bikini Queen ★★★★
Mantra on Russell, until 18 April
Thank God for Fern Brady – literally, since the Scottish comic’s devotion to profanity, self-flagellation and lurid metaphor is the sort only a lapsed Catholic can summon.
Since she last darkened our shores she’s been diagnosed as autistic and loving it. It helps her to understand why she’s drawn to the kind of comedy that would have her burned as a witch back home, and while she knows there’s the occasional Fitzrovian who will tap out an Instagram comment explaining the problematic nature of some of her lines, Melbourne in general laps up her slightly sociopathic trashbag shtick.
Scottish comedian Fern Brady.Credit:Chris Hopkins
In her universe everything is slinking towards the grave and the best way to get married is sarcastically. Equal parts Billy Connolly and Eve Villanelle, Brady’s bleak but brilliant outlook is a bitter tonic to ward off despair. John Bailey
Tom Walker – Javelin ★★★★
Chinese Museum until April 24
Five years on from his Big Award-nominated show that potently mixed clowning and mime with startling revelations and manic intensity, it’s interesting to see where this show finds the inordinately talented Tom Walker.
As delightfully odd and expressive as ever, Walker has built an hour around an alleged javelin fixation, mixing mime with more straightforward stand-up and enhancing it with tidy multimedia support and elegant technical innovations.
For instance, a device introduced at the start fundamentally adjusts how the audience sees parts of the show and while it didn’t feel like it was used to its full potential, its inventiveness is testament to Walker’s willingness to push the creative possibilities of the form.
All of his mimed sketches earn their keep – an extended “bull in a china shop” bit is particularly excellent – and there is notably no audience participation which is gleefully acknowledged given Walker’s mildly infamous predilection for crowd work in his early days.
As if he couldn’t help himself, there is one gut-punch nugget of personal history amid gentler self-deprecation but Walker’s self-confidence and command of his unusual energy ensures this is a relatively upbeat and mellow affair, even if it might lack the cry-laughter inducements of earlier shows.
And amid the zaniness and dick jokes there might even be some genuine resonance. As life mantras go, “Throw Javelin, Watch Javelin” is certainly not the worst we’ve heard. Patrick Horan
Luke Heggie Your Stupid ★★★★
European Bier Café until April 24
“There’s no time for pussy footing or dilly dallying,” states Luke Heggie at the top of his show.
His blunt delivery hammers home a selection of brutal observations about the world we live in – tackling renting, parenting and the cost of living.
Couched in the charm of a bloke who is prepared to tell it how it really is, the routine even shares some life lessons.
Heggie seduces with his smarts, weaving such phrases as “a hard day’s yakka”, “heebie jeebies” and “hot diggity” into a barrage of heady remarks and nostalgic contemplations. Referencing the all-you-can-eat restaurant Sizzler sets off the room.
He’s the quintessential stand-up who may have you laughing at stuff that you didn’t expect to find funny. Donna Demaio
Hot Department – After Party ★★★★
Victoria Hotel until April 24
In case the tarp laid out on the stage wasn’t enough of a clue, one half of Hot Department makes it clear off the top: this is not stand-up.
It’s deliriously sexed-up sketch cabaret delivered by the irrepressible duo of Honor Wolff and Patrick Durnan Silva.
Most of their clothing is removed almost immediately, so anyone who’s somehow taken a wrong turn at 11pm can quickly yank any scandalised family members out of the room.
But as unrelentingly horny as the show is, it’s more silly than truly shocking and its inventiveness and character work provides plenty of opportunity for its admirably game stars to show off a lot more than just skin.
Every sketch delivers something hilarious and memorable even when duration or the odd choice might be questionable, and any meta meandering is kept well in check, with an anti-improv bit particularly inspired.
If you have any affinity for Aunty Donna’s loud, high-octane style you’ll find plenty to enjoy in an hour that delivers exactly the sort of wild, WTF energy a good late show should. Patrick Horan
Greg Larsen, We all have bloody thoughts ★★★½
Comedy Republic until April 24
Greg Larsen admits to being a tad melodramatic. And he’s aware that things he says “can sound deranged”.
He doesn’t pull any punches when tackling some rather hefty topics like fascism, atheism and mental health, drawing plenty of chuckles along the way.
Rambling, reflective stories about dealing with debt collectors, enduring countless crappy jobs, obsessing over McDonald’s and being denied entry to a gay club end up showcasing an astute wit.
He recovers well when post-COVID brain fog attacks mid-routine.
It’s an opinionated, spirited Larsen who, while exhibiting his acting chops, daringly crosses the line for a laugh. Donna Demaio
Phil Wang, The Real Hero in All This ★★★½
Max Watts until 16 April
On the spectrum of Britishness, Phil Wang sits somewhere between David Mitchell and Stephen Fry – pretty bloody English, but not quite the full-blown caricature. He may have spent the first half of his life in Borneo, but the wang jokes roll off his tongue like he was named after them.
Of course cultural identity is itself a bag of contradictions. Wang points out the paradox that is British Instagram, in which people try to come off both shiny and miserable; he grew up with Malaysia’s snakes and spiders but was never threatened by the abject horror of nits.
The hour has a few rough edges for such a polished performer. His best material here is personal: he mines his father’s ice-cold approach to parenting to hilarious effect, while a lengthy bit about fact-checking an intimate claim in his own autobiography is a reminder of what he’s capable of when he goes full Wang. John Bailey
Aidan Jones, Pap ★★★½
Melbourne Town Hall – The Flag Room, until April 24
Aidan Jones has been forging his own channel in Australian comedy for a decade: conversational, observational, low key, low stakes. The guy feels seasoned and comfortable on stage, and Pap begins in this zone, with early comers finding Jones chatting about other shows, ensuring we’re all friends here by the time he walks off stage to introduce himself and begin the show.
Jones’ style is so conversational that much of Pap will depend upon whether anyone in the room has been memorably fired from a job. He’s been fired from 14 and much of the show is him riffing off some of these experiences in an empathetic and occasionally hilarious way. Jones has zingers about shit jobs, crap bosses and a pant-wettingly funny section about how his podcast (“54 listeners!“) led to one of the firings, and what Centrelink for the lonely might look like, an idea that could fuel a whole show.
Pap is broken into sections by Jones reading from emails he’s received from his grandfather, and it highlights his ability to turn empathy and poignancy into something funny and relatable. But, when Jones takes a risk, as he does composing an impromptu club banger, it really pays off. Andy Hazel
Urvi Majumdar, Urvi Went To An All Girls School ★★★½
Mantra on Russell until April 24
Urvi Majumdar would make for a fine Dolly Doctor. Roaring onto the stage and reading maniacally from excerpts of her teenage diary, Majumdar recounts adolescence, puberty, unrequited love and all of the general horrors that high school involves, like a Tina Fey fever dream.
From overbearing (although naive) parents, both the anticipation and dread of your formal and the unrealistic beauty standards thrust upon teenagers, Majumdar’s storytelling and delivery is well-polished.
Be it the act of smoking for no reason than other pure rebellion, or trying to gain the attention and adoration of the other sex, her anecdotes are enough to give anyone flashbacks to Shawshank Redemption-ing outside a window and heading to a house party that a crush was at. Especially when they should have been preparing for their end-of-year exams.
While nothing revolutionary, Went To An All Girls School is a solid and impressive debut. Tyson Wray
Oliver Twist, Griot ★★★
Melbourne Town Hall until 24 April
The West African griot is a storyteller; 14 years in a refugee camp could leave you with enough for a lifetime. Oliver Twist (his real name) touches down in Melbourne via Sydney, Ipswich, Malawi and Rwanda. He hadn’t been in Australia 24 hours before the cops pulled him up, but this isn’t a tale of survival or oppression. Instead, it’s a warm and easy-going hour with an assured entertainer.
From his teenage career selling porn in a camp of 80,000 to the real problem of jail time in the West (he’d be a far too enthusiastic snitch), Twist’s tale is appropriately meandering.
Griots often perform sitting down, and while stand-ups sometimes perform seated, it’s usually in the kind of high chair that leaves them perched in a state of tension. Twist’s a low-rider in terms of both altitude and manner, though, with an easy-going presence that invites his crowd to relax. John Bailey
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs until April 24. The Age is a major media partner.
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