Tell any comedy fan that the organisers of Greenwich Comedy Festival managed to persuade Tommy Tiernan to perform at their first ever festival and they’ll tell you what a coup that is. So long as the person you ask is Irish.
Tiernan is arguably one of Ireland’s most famous comedians, forming a key character within the comedy circuit there - he went to school with Dylan Moran, performed in the last ever recorded Father Ted, was awarded the Perrier Award in 1998 and has appeared several times on David Letterman in the States, yet he’s still relatively unheard of on these shores.
The opening of the set leaves you in little question as to why this is - at least half of the material was geared towards his main fan-base, with songs and jokes in Gaeilge using cultural references from the Emerald Isle. The sizable Irish contingent lapped and whooped it up. But beyond these niche crowd pleasers, Tiernan demonstrated a more delicate touch, observing the difficulties of married life with a young family through a series of vignettes enlivened with his trademark physicality and bellowed delivery (once they’d sorted the mic out, that is).
Tommy was only one of four comedians who took to the stage that night though, each of which would otherwise deservedly be a headline act in their own right. Dan Atkinson had the unenviable task of vying with the bar for the audience’s attention throughout the evening, and provided what must go down in history as the shortest ever introduction to an encore. Yet he didn’t allow himself to be eclipsed by the other performers and through his enthusiasm and shambolic charm managed to captivate the thousand-strong crowd whilst still engaging with the audience on a personal level.
A half naked Phil Nicol in hunchback mode serenaded (and simultaneously outed) a member of the audience, in the style of Bob Dylan, Bjork, the Proclaimers and Oasis. His high octane performance confounded any expectations for his set from those more familiar with his show “A Deadpan Poet Sings Quiet Songs Quietly” from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Thank goodness for the 20 minute break which followed, allowing us to recover our senses before Kevin Eldon - masquerading as Paul Hamilton, a local poet and last minute alteration to the bill - took to the stage with a sharply insightful send up of high-brow poetry. For someone who’s been in the background of so much strong British comedy - Fist of Fun, Brass Eye, Big Train, Nathan Barley, Hot Fuzz, Spaced... need I go on? - it’s good to see him take centre stage at last. Hopefully we’ll see more such characters in the future.
In all, the line up could not have been more varied - veering in pitch from bashfully arty to shoutily graphic vulgarity (of the best kind, of course) - but weirdly it worked. It was an eye-opening Thursday night, which I don’t think anyone there will forget in a hurry. Especially Larry the policeman, who was unwittingly dragged into Nicol’s set and will have had some rather sensitive questions to answer at work this morning.
By Ruth Lang
Greenwich Comedy Festival runs until Sunday