REVIEW: Billy T Jams (NZ International Comedy Festival)

Review by Matt Baker

[Welcome to the Jam]

The Billy T Jam is the amuse-bouche of the NZ International Comedy Festival. An opportunity for audiences to whet their appetite with an introduction to the year’s Billy T Award nominees. 2010 winner Rhys Mathewson, who ensures the audience has no question as to who the festivals gold sponsor is – spoiler: it’s Best Mayo – hosts the evening with an ease and candour that feels like you’re hanging out with your best mate. He rehashes some older material, from his musings on Lotto to explaining heckling, and wins the crowd over with a new piece on this council correspondence regarding his hatred of the Auckland Marathon. This year’s line-up is particularly strong, and Mathewson holds the show together with impeccable style and skill so there is never a dull moment.

First up is Melanie Bracewell, who some may remember as last year’s Best Newcomer. Bracewell has made an impressive impact in the comedy scene, especially online, and is arguably New Zealand’s best young female comedian. Her timing is incredibly organic, and she is able to play off the audience, knowing where to draw the line, and where to push it beyond its comfort zone and back again.

Alice Snedden comes from a political family, so it’s no surprise that her comedy has a political charge to it. She’s a left-wing feminist, and holds her views with a strong comedic resolve, which she undercuts just enough to soften the blow without losing her integrity, allowing her to appeal to the audiences she deserves.

Previous nominees Laura Daniel (2016) and Joseph Moore (2013) team up this year to bring back their critically-acclaimed comedic duo, Two Hearts. Daniel and Moore have each utilised music individually in the past, with originals and parodies that deserve their own albums. When combined, their musical talent is of phenomenally high standard and comedic cohesion.

Kicking off the second act, Donna Brookbanks makes a hilariously extended entrance, immediately setting the tone of her character-driven comedy. Brookbanks’ physicality and audience interaction places her outside the box in terms of traditional structure, and while there’s no reason she couldn’t win, she could be this year’s dark horse.

While the three individual women each have a similar performative style (prepare to see word “awkward” littered throughout comedy festival reviews), they also have distinct variations in content and delivery, which makes them unique. If you like one of them, you’ll probably like all of them, but you won’t see the same thing twice.

From his Billy T nominated show in 2016, James Malcolm has honed his craft with impressive speed. He’s developed a confidence in his off-the-cuff rapport with the audience, and his often crude material has matured a refined edge that makes it more accessible to the general public, without taking away from the essence of his comedic perspective.

Closing the night, 2017 winner Angela Dravid destroys a heckler amongst stories from last year’s show, which proves that the truth is often stranger than fiction, and in the case of Dravid, far funnier. Whether it’s self-observational or anecdotal, Dravid’s self-deprecating content and deadpan delivery is a consistent style which hooks the audience from her first line.

Speaking with Mathewson after the show, I was unable to give him my pick for the winner – simply because the bar has been set higher than any years I’ve seen previously, and every comedian has risen above it. There were no weak links, and it would be safe to say that each show will be a stand out in its own right. Add to this Last Laughs on May 20 hosted by Ben Hurley, at which the winner is announced, and you already have six shows to see in this year’s New Zealand International Comedy Festival.

Billy T Jams was presented by the New Zealand International Comedy Festival and played at Q Theatre on March 2.

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