Mike Parker experiences the Machynlleth Comedy Festival 2014

Perhaps the finest joke of all at the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, which this year celebrated its fifth successful outing, is that it coincides with the town’s thousand-strong Dyfi Enduro 70km cycle race.  It is not hard to work out who is there for which event: tanned, lycra-clad über-humans shimmy along Heol Maengwyn, elbowing aside sallow young comedy hipsters blinking in unaccustomed daylight.

Somehow though, oil and water manage to mix, especially when the universal lubricant of alcohol is added. Numerous pop-up bars and cafes, dotted around the town’s spring-bright lawns and greens, help foster a real carnival buzz. A small Welsh market town – basically ‘two streets and a pronunciation problem’, as Peter Sager memorably had it – shyly reveals itself to be a festival site par excellence.

Comedy gigs are shoehorned into every available space, from the cut-price municipality of Y Plas and the high school to the rather more congenial confines of the bowling club, a former tabernacle, an art gallery, David Davies’ splendid Owain Glyndŵr Institute, a sweet shop, a junk shop, a steam train, a prizewinning shed and the cellar of a delicatessen. Alongside the path connecting the main venues is an outdoor stage tucked into the trees, home mainly to free sample sets from those hoping to boost their box office elsewhere.

Watching them tout their wares, the glint of desperation mostly masked by well-crafted bonhomie, I have ‘Nam-style flashbacks to the brutality of the world of stand-up. From my own cheerfully unsuccessful days on the circuit, I well recall that there is nowhere on earth so lacking in easy good humour as backstage at a comedy gig; a place where frail egos, frustrated ambition, and existential terror collide under too-bright lighting. 

For three days in May, the comedy world’s backstage area is the stone huddle of Machynlleth, lit not by harsh neon but a green Welsh fuse. You can feel the performers breathing easier (though that could be the 8% proof chili porter kicking in).  This is the festival’s ace: sheer distance from the scene and sheer indifference to the reviewers (they take great pleasure in refusing to give press tickets) make this a safe haven for new material, unforeseen collaboration and mutual anarchy.  Numerous comics perform try-out shows; this year Nick Helm managed eight different ones. I hope he’s got enough now for his forthcoming BBC3 series.

Punters too get to relax, and a few of then even notice where they are. Someone was overheard outside the chippy bleating ‘isn’t it great here? It’s just like London!’, which mainly suggests that their experience of London is sorely lacking.  Few outsiders make it to any of the ‘Welsh’ gigs, which is a pity. Admittedly, they’d possibly not get much out of the programme yn Gymraeg, but there is plenty of Welsh stuff in yr iaith fain, and it’s only ever performed to a loyal and local crowd. It’s a similar problem I’ve noticed in other Welsh-located but British-tilted festivals (such as Hay, Green Man or Number 6) and is a crying shame, if only for the lost opportunity for some much needed cross-border dialogue, laced with music, laughter and beer.

It’s not just the Welsh stuff that gets slightly shunted aside.  Politics generally seems to be quite far down the agenda, behind every possible permutation of wank gag. Considering the febrile political atmosphere of the time, this too strikes me as a shame, for comedy is such a way of airing difficult topics and teasing them out, in both senses of the word. Welshness, Britishness, the Scottish referendum, UKIP-thinking, languages, culture, incomers, class, race, religion, austerity, globalisation – this is the ideal time and place to play with them all. Maybe I went to the wrong gigs.

Before the festival, there was a slight sense in Machynlleth of creeping ennui towards it. Five festivals on, we’d got a little blasé, but it’s safe to say that this brilliant weekend reminded us all what a jewel of an event it is, and just how perfect a fit it is with the town. The organisers (founder Henry Widdicombe in particular) should be congratulated for keeping it so keenly on track. The bum-fluff beardy hipsters and sleek cycling robots may well have been there in droves, but they were still outnumbered by fiercely proud locals trying their best not to look too smug.

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