My Ashbourne Arts Festival ended this weekend with a cracking double-header. On Friday night the standup at the Empire Ballroom had its strongest ever lineup. On Saturday Stuart Maconie took to the same stage to do his The People’s Songs show. The venue has switched over the years from the Station with Ian Stone, to the Green Man (Henning Wehn, Reginald D Hunter, Bob Mills etc) and now the Empire Ballroom. It’s a good venue because it has a proper stage but mainly because it offers excellent source material for the acts.
Matt Richardson was the compere for the evening and he commented straight away about the gold curtains. Having seen a few acts in Ashbourne I think we are generally a welcoming audience who really want to enjoy the night. The only comedians which tend to fail with us are anything too experimental or anything too London-centric. Matt did an excellent job warming up the crowd by working his way along the front row of the audience and adding a bit of his local acquired knowledge. We liked him and it would be nice to see him another year with a pure standup set. First up was Jo Caulfield. I know her mainly from Radio 4. She opened up the evening with a very confident set discussing her domestic arrangements and hitting home with a few topics – mainly DIY and shopping – which had the couples in the audience looking accusatively at each other.
After the interval there was Paul McMullan who kept the momentum going and opened up another theme for the evening – the youth of today. Russell Hicks was a surprising highlight for me – an American standup who wove wide-ranging improvisation and interaction with the crowd with deprecating jokes about American stereotypes and a wry swipe back at British culture. He was very funny and setup the headliner well. Paul Tonkinson was great. The venue was a good size for the audience to enjoy his facial expressions as well as the jokes. The content was mainly observational humour ranging from teenagers to the North and plenty in between. He really added some warmth (on a stuffy evening) and feel-good. I think this was the best lineup I’ve seen in the Festival and it was good to see it rightly sold out.
On Saturday Stuart Maconie did his The People’s Songs show. I hadn’t read his book or heard the podcasts but I have always thought he was one of those radio presenters whose musical taste matched mine – wide-ranging and slightly off-centre. The show was centred on the book which, chapter-by-chapter took themes of modern British history and discussed the music which symbolised it. He opened the show with The Beatles and proposed the as a turning point between a Britain ruled by the elite and a more inclusive society with The Beatles being shared by all classes. They were the first gig he ever went to and his description of his mother’s recollection of the occasion were insightful and tender – more about the surrounding events than the concert itself. This set the tone for the whole evening. While the comedians the previous evening saw the surroundings of the Empire as a comedic icebreaker, he looked on them nostalgically as part of our heritage. Stuart is a man of the people himself. He had a mixture of playful name-dropping with accessible storytelling almost in an Alan Bennett way. He wasn’t the “star turn” and he was planning to go hiking in the Dales on Sunday. There were some interesting points made. I particularly liked his observations around Live Aid (Band Aid) and multicultural Britain (Millie). I also liked his anecdotes and particularly the story about the “local shop for local people” in Sedbergh with the “we do not sell batteries or light bulbs” sign. You had to be there. There was a brief Q&A and then sign of the success of the evening was the length of the queue for a book signing. I couldn’t think of a more fitting show to symbolise the Ashbourne Arts Festival – a vast global culture discussed in very accessible human terms.