Tommy Tiernan, Abandoman and Spencer Jones shine at Kilkenny Cat Laughs

The festival gets a new set of directors for 2017

George Hayworth of Bourgeois and Maurice at Kilkenny Cat Laughs

George Hayworth of Bourgeois and Maurice at Kilkenny Cat Laughs

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Since 1995, Kilkenny Cat Laughs has become Ireland’s essential comedy pilgrimage, and this year sees former festival director and Kilkenny man Naoise Nunn handing the reins to Matt Smyth and Dan Colley, producer and director of Collapsing Horse Theatre.

The charms of Kilkenny and the calibre of comedians the festival can book are what make it such a success. You can hardly turn a corner in the Marble City over the weekend without bumping into a gang of performers, roaming the town between sets, looking for lunch or a refreshment, or dipping into each other’s shows.

For most of the day and night, everyone at Cat Laughs, from the audience to the performers and the producers, is sharing the same spaces. It makes for a sparkling, friendly atmosphere at a festival that is already spilling over with good humour.

Despite being on at the relatively early time of 6pm on Friday, a show featuring Kevin Bridges, Abandoman and Jason Byrne with MC Eric Lalor turns out to be one of the best and most spontaneous of the weekend.

Most people will be familiar with Jason Byrne’s approach, and like many comedians, when he is out of the handcuffs of television and its mainstream standards, he is sharper, riskier and funnier. He frequently diverts his slot with improvisations, though he is given gold when one of his targets turns out to be called Padraic Flattery. During a riff about vasectomy, he finds an audience member with a very deep voice who is very proud of having had the procedure. Another man in the front row who looks like George Lucas (Star Wars inevitably comes up) also proves irresistible for most of the performers.

Kevin Bridges is pretty much on top of the comedy pile, with 1.25m followers on Twitter, frequent television spots and shows, and tours that more typically include stadium dates, rather than a relatively small room in an Irish hotel. He’s edgier than most of his popular contemporaries, and here he gets the sharpest intake of breath for a joke mentioning Gerry McCann.

It’s a strong set, filled with sharp observations, such as his weight loss programme: “I’ve lost three stone in seven years. In my before picture I’m in my school uniform”. Even at Kilkenny, though, you can feel performers struggling to come up with something fresher or stranger to say than what’s happening in the world. Bridges handles it well, mentioning God’s recent performance in a football analogy quip - “He’s in over his head; he’s lost the dressing room now mate” - before offering advice on how to handle Trump.

Mentioning the US president on Twitter, Bridges points out that “pubs are for little men speaking their minds” and the best thing to do is respond similarly, by listening briefly, then patting him on the shoulder patronisingly and saying “Enjoy your night, mate.”

You could be forgiven for wondering why Abandoman are headlining above a star such as Bridges, but when Rob Broderick and musical sidekick Sam Wilson bounce on stage it’s easy to see why.

Irishman Broderick performs comedy hip hop tracks that are largely improvised from what the audience tell or give him. What’s in Your Pocket sets the tone - people in the audience hold up the odd things they are carrying and Broderick tears around the rooming, grabbing, looking and riffing on the spot. Indigestion tables lead to the gem that is: “This lady is the Gaviscon dealer / Tomorrow when you’re feeling rough, she’s your tummy Jesus.”

Later that night, a smaller, sparser room proves a trickier proposition for David O’Doherty, Phill Jupitus and Fern Brady, with Joanne McNally doing a terrific job as MC. She talks about gin being “liquidised paranoia” before discussing how wine is aggressively marketed at women: “Just look at the wine glass. It’s like a uterus on a stiletto.”

Fern Brady pushes the envelope as much as anyone all weekend, with jokes on female anatomy and her mental health that stretch the audience’s comfort zone. The writing and delivery is sharp, even if much of the crowd don’t seem convinced.

Phill Jupitus, though, has an off night. An oddly flat set never picks up much momentum, especially on a tangent about BMW and Audi drivers not knowing how to indicate. It’s surprisingly gentle and dull, and he’s on better, richer ground when talking about his own family life and dealing with raising two daughters.

David O’Doherty during the Second Captains show at Kilkenny Cat Laughs
David O’Doherty during the Second Captains show at Kilkenny Cat Laughs

David O’Doherty arrives on stage with his trusty keyboard and brilliant wordplay, as safe a headliner as you could find at Cat Laughs. The songs are as charming as ever, including his track about celebrities doing dull things that rhyme with their names. Who wouldn’t be impressed with “Ruud Gullit cleaning out his Nutribullet”?

O’Doherty find gold in the mundane, hilarity in the everyday. A section on the junk he buys in Aldi ends with him trying to buy a pizza cutter but forgetting its name, and the best he can come up with is “infinity knife”. It’s clever, charming and warmly received.

Rubberbandits get a slot to themselves for an 11pm show and tear through their hits with huge energy, punctuated by barbed observations in-between. Horse Outside and Spastic Hawk are so well known that they’ve become a shorthand for the cultural subversion that the Rubberbandits represent. But they are also politically on fire, especially on Sometimes It’s Best Not to Express your Opinion on Abortion. They also manage to make Spoiling Ivan, a song about being friends and a father figure for a six-year-old, into a poignant, bouncy moment amid the madness of Cat Laughs.

On Saturday afternoon, the Second Captains team do a live podcast from Langton’s Ballroom, and Richie Sadlier is surprisingly open about his frosty relationship with his fellow football analysts at RTÉ. He learned quickly that they were as sly off the pitch as on. At one of the preshow production meetings, he talked at length about the points he wanted to discuss that evening. A few hours later and on live television, he finds those precise points being delivered by his fellow pundits before he has a chance to get a word in.

David O’Doherty and Dara Ó Briain take a break from their numerous shows around town to join the team, and are greeted by two films: One of a young O’Doherty clearing out Denis Hickie during a 1991 junior cup rugby game (which his team won). And another of O’Briain hitting a sliotar on Lord’s cricket ground and cracking a photographer on the head. Sport does come up in places, and it’s an enjoyable afternoon detour for the festival.

The Soho Theatre also makes a trip to Kilkenny, with local queen Panti MCing an event that varies in quality. Jayde Adams opens with a wandering set of material that finds a stunning resolution. A segment about her travelling on an overnight bus, and being disturbed by a bunch of young men listening to music on a speaker, ends with no small spectacle when the charming Adams delivers a show-stealing performance of Nessun Dorma.

Bourgeois and Maurice are an off-kilter cabaret act, with knowing, arch material and a dry delivery. The hair and outfits might be spectacular, and one track about not getting invited to a Chem Sex party hits the mark. But overall the writing feels stretched too thinly across the set.

Spencer Jones performs at Kilkenny Cat Laughs. Photograph: Allen Kiely
A very physical comedian: Spencer Jones performs at Kilkenny Cat Laughs. Photograph: Allen Kiely

Spencer Jones, though, manages to deliver one of the strangest and most brilliant sets of the weekend. He’s a very physical comedian, not afraid to use any part of his body to make a joke better, and his props are household items he’s slightly adapted to his purposes - a squeezable floor mop turned into a singer is brilliant and bonkers.

Throughout the set he scurries around the stage, sniggering at his own jokes and barely uttering a sentence, before looking around bewildered, saying “I’dm 41”, and bringing the house down. It’s crude, terrific clowning, entirely ridiculous and an utter delight.

Another highlight of the weekend is Tommy Tiernan’s set on Saturday. Tiernan begins in low key mode, whispering as he slowly shuffles on stage. “There is no peace in this life,” he intones more than once, during material that plumbs some dark depths before pitching up into the ridiculousness of Ireland today.

Tommy Tiernan on stage during Kilkenny Cat Laughs
Risky ground: Tommy Tiernan on stage during Kilkenny Cat Laughs

Some risky ground on introducing abortion machines to the home is contrasted with the observation that: “We have a gay Taoiseach and it’s not long ago that in this country you were’t allowed to be left handed. And now we’re trying to reintroduce drink driving. But only for country people.”

Another riff on the HSE ends with him saying if he was in charge, he’d introduce a slogan for hospitals - “You’re not supposed to live forever” - along with a statute of a doctor rolling a pair of dice.

It’s all delivered with his wolfish smirk that makes even the darkest parts seem somehow lighter, and gives an audience permission to laugh like drains.

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