REVIEW: An Hour with Ackbar (NZ International Comedy Festival)

Review by James Wenley

Gial Ackbar himself

[Forced Humour]

Casual Star Wars fans might know Admiral Ackbar as the alien who turns to the camera during the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi to utter those immortal lines: “It’s a trap!”* This has helped Ackbar find latter-day day fame as an internet meme.

I could also tell you the Mon Calamarian fought with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars, was enslaved by Grand Moff Tarkin, and was still with the rebellion come resistance for his most recent appearance in Episode VII: The Force Awakens. What I didn’t know about was his hobby space-stationlighting as a stand-up comedian. Star Wars comedy? I’m there.

An Hour with Ackbar is created and performed by Anya Tate-Manning wearing a suave suit and Ackbar mask, created by Jon Coddington, that is a movie-worthy work of art in itself (watch this promo video to see it in action). Ackbar grumbles through the inane Ricky Gervais voiced welcome to the comedy festival intro/unsubtle advertisement for the David Brent film (“Hurry up!”), before opening with that well-known tribute to the Rebellion’s Starfleet, ‘In the Navy’.

Ackbar then goes through the standard stand-up patter. Who is in the audience tonight – Wookiees? Jawas? (Turns out Quarrens are the Hamiltonians of the Galaxy). He then moves on to topical humour, like our flag debate and the rise of Sith Lords John Key and Donald Trump. He wants to talk about imperialism, and the refugee crisis. Life has always been a trap.

It quickly becomes apparent that Tate-Manning is satirising the stereotype of an alcoholic, self-loathing comedian who just happens to be from the Star Wars Universe (though my friend, who unlike me did not spend his youth obsessively trawling for Star Wars trivia and posting on TheForce.net message boards, felt like he missed 50% of the gags).

It’s a clever way to deconstruct stand-up tropes, but the laughs start to fall away as Manning pursues the concept of a comedian’s set floundering, rather than the quality of the gags. We are back on track though with readings from Ackbar’s autobiography, and more appropriate musical numbers (‘Fly Me to the Moon’).

The show takes an unexpectedly dark turn when a key event from Episode VII is referenced, and I and others realise just how raw that loss still feels. Just how are Ackbar and friends coping after the destruction of Starkiller base?

It’s a must-see for Star Wars geeks, and probably best attended when you’re a few shows into the Festival and can best appreciate Ackbar’s use of typical stand-up material. If there is one major disappointment, it is that the title does a Palpatine. We get barely 40 minutes with Ackbar. Yep, it’s a trap!

* Erik Bauersfeld, the voice actor for Ackbar, died this month aged 93.  The character is puppetered in the films by Tim Rose. Bauersfield says that he saw a picture of Ackbar’s face, “and I knew what he must sound like”. Tate-Manning’s version of the voice is a wonderful tribute.

An Hour with Ackbar plays as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival 2016 at the Basement until 30 April. Details see Comedy Festival

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