Review: Ali McGregor’s Late-Nite Variety-Nite Night

ali-mcgregorAli McGregor’s Late-Nite Variety-Nite Night
Starring: Ali McGregor, Asher Treleaven, Dead Cat Bounce, Carl-Einar Häckner, Tom Ballard, The Pajama Men
Appearing at: Melbourne Town Hall, for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

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The joy of Ali McGregor’s Late-Nite Variety-Nite Night is not knowing precisely what will happen next. It’s late, it’s loose, and the guests are some of the most original and critically lauded voices at the festival.

While the Festival Club tends to showcase the mainstream stand-up internationals, the Late-Nite Variety-Nite Night is an edgier way to relax with a drink and discover acts you may have otherwise missed. And when everyone in the room is in stitches – including the host –  you know you’re at the best-value show in town.

McGregor is a classically trained soprano who, since 2005, has purveyed a brand of operatic cabaret tinged with burlesque and vaudeville. She’s presented this late-night sideshow at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival since 2007, and it enjoyed a sold-out season at Edinburgh in 2009. She’s currently eight-and-a-half months pregnant, but that hasn’t slowed her down.

The physical comedy comes courtesy of McGregor’s white-gloved, slick-haired butler, Saxon McAllistair, aka Asher Treleaven. I wondered to my companion whether McAllistair’s flat Aussie vowels and general air of annoyed pedantry were inspired by former prime minister John Howard. His sour interjections, and interplay with McGregor, were very enjoyable; but what had me gasping with laughter was his interpretive dance routine to Kate Bush’s ‘Babooshka’, the song performed by McGregor with uncanny vocal similarity to the original.

McGregor’s own schtick is to perform well-known pop songs with incongruous and slightly creepy arrangements. She plays the autoharp, plus its electronic counterpart from the ’80s, the Omnichord (with amusing commentary on the machine’s preset rhythms), and the Stylophone, a miniature synthesiser best known for being spruiked by Rolf Harris. Her cut-glass voice is astounding, although she amps up the ethereal quality by using an echo effect on her mic. I just wish she’d give Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ a miss, though; she’s played it in every single performance of hers I’ve ever seen.

Talent-wise, a variety show is always a game of roulette, but the guests I saw were a stellar bunch. I’d come fresh from seeing Irish comedy-rock band Dead Cat Bounce, and they were tonight’s first guests. I was a little crestfallen to realise that what had seemed like spontaneous stage banter was in fact tightly scripted. But their genre-hopping songs seemed much funnier and more likeable without the audience of rabid Irish fans who had hooted with mirth throughout their show.

I hadn’t heard of Carl-Einar Häckner before but I’ll definitely try to get to his show after laughing myself stupid at his guest spot. The Swede, who rather resembles Axl Rose at his ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ peak attractiveness, came out with a guitar and awkward broken English as if to sing folk songs, but his act quickly took a surreal hairpin-turn into demented sight gags and magic tricks. I have never seen anyone do that with a mouth organ.

Tom Ballard, the 20-year-old, Warrnambool-born stand-up wunderkind, was up next. His jokes, especially those about being gay, were much darker and more acerbic than I’d expected, but for me they were leavened by his cherubic appearance and cheerful delivery. The only thing that I felt spoiled Ballard’s set was that at certain points, he couldn’t resist retaliating to the audible unease from some parts of the crowd.

Internationally awarded American comedy duo the Pajama Men were last on the bill and, oh boy, I can see why they get rave reviews everywhere they go. Here’s one more: I laughed until I coughed. Without props or musical cues, Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez frenetically create surreal skits that turn genre clichés into side-splitting non sequiturs. Another act I’ll definitely try to see.

There are only seven (six, if you’re reading this after today) more Late-Nite Variety-Nite nights, on Fridays and Saturdays at 11pm throughout the festival. We heartily recommend you be at one of them.

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