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OXFORD COMEDY FESTIVAL
THE Oxford Comedy Festival, now in its second year, is a rare chance to see Edinburgh Fringe performances before they reach Scotland, before they have been fine-tuned and, in some cases, even before they are fully written.
Comprising over 50 shows across six venues, the festival is an organisational feat, and a real credit to its organisers, the QED Comedy Lab.
Stand-up comedy at its best is an incredible artform, able to speak truths and challenge taboos more profoundly than perhaps any other medium, and this year’s performances certainly embrace that opportunity.
The organisers have especially spotlighted “traditionally under-represented voices,” with female comedians particularly prominent this year.
Esther Manito’s aptly-named show Crusade is a hilarious and biting tour-de-force against both macro and micro-level attempts to box and confine the space in which contemporary women operate, from far-right social media trolling to judgy parents in the playground.
The bete noir of the piece is Linda, a particularly passive aggressive manifestation of the latter phenomenon, whose middle-class digs form the perfect foil for Manito’s sublime comebacks.
But, as so often with the far right, some of the funniest moments come from simple verbatim reports of their own remarks — as when an EDL-type responds to Esther’s facebook page “Esther Manito — Lebanese British comedian” with the comment: “Who cares what her sexuality is?”
Lorna Shaw’s Shaw and Order is a brave attempt to go outside the tried and tested comedy seams of relationships, petty annoyances and getting high with a show about her obsession with true crime documentaries.
“I’ve learnt some valuable survival skills from watching all this stuff,” she tells us, “the most important one being — don’t be a woman under 35!”
If she ever gets attacked now, she explains, she won’t bother jabbing the assailant with her keys, she’ll just wave her driving licence in their face, yelling: “I’m not your demographic.”
The centrepiece of the show, however, is the story of her own attempt to fight the iniquity of having her car towed away for breaking a rule on a parking sign erected only after she had parked.
It is refreshing to see a female comedian occupying the traditionally male-dominated terrain of obsessional geekishness, and her wide-eyed naively enthusiastic shtick certainly pulls it off.
Desiree Burch and Lou Sanders, meanwhile, do focus on sex and relationships, but not as you’ve heard them discussed before.
Burch’s set piece story of her liaisons at the Burning Man Festival contains the best opening line of the festival (“It was the Great Dick Drought of 2016…”) before weaving and meandering its merry way through all manner of strange encounters, (attempted) transgressions and incisive observations, as all good comedy should.
Lou Sanders, meanwhile, discusses her change of direction from serial seductress to life on a self-imposed man ban under the Skyped directions of her Alpine spiritual healer.
Sleeping with loads of people used to be her way of striking a blow for feminism, she tells us: why should men get to do it without anyone batting an eyelid, and not women?
But on reflection, “I’m not convinced it really did that much to advance the cause.”
In this shock-saturated world we live in, it’s no easy thing to make an audience feel uncomfortable, but Sanders manages to achieve it, and in a show that is poignant and thoughtful as well as face-achingly funny.
Both women are at once self-reflective, unashamed and direct, proving that comedy remains at the cutting edge of confronting cultural restrictions.
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