This year marked the 7th festival which brought together a diverse range of comedy, theatre and music, catering for adults and children alike.
The festival, organised by Henry Widdicombe and Emma Butler, takes over the entire town offering performances over the three days, ranging from small intimate venues to their largest 300 seated Tabernacl.
I have a certain amount of reluctance in committing the last bank holiday weekend in April to print. The battle here is between a fear of never being able to capture the experience effectively anywhere outside of my own head and amongst those who were there, and the importance of promoting a festival which arguably, could be seen as more attractive than the Edinburgh Fringe. That said, there is also a feeling that the festival should be protected…that there is something inherently special about it. Taking all this into consideration, I feel I have to write; but I refuse to review, and I will not impose any kind of clinical or formal structure to the following thoughts. Instead I take this as an opportunity to reflect on one of the most heartwarming entertainment events I have had the good fortune to attend.
This year was my first trip to Machynlleth (MachFest), and in my head I suppose I had a preconceived image of something akin to a pocket sized Edinburgh. Reading up and picking the shows to book, I came across something said by Arthur Smith about the festival. “If Edinburgh is now a pressure cooker, Mach is the sun coming out.” It's only by experiencing the weekend first hand that I can understand exactly what Mr Smith meant by this, and how accurate his analogy is.
Thinking we would tackle the weekend in traditional festival style, we decided on camping for accommodation. If I'm being honest, this was primarily due to the lack of available hotels and B&Bs within a 5 mile radius when I phoned round 4 months before the festival. Ultimately deciding on a yurt, and following the 4 ½ hour car journey, the first plan was to orientate ourselves with the town, the festival venues, eateries and bars. The Friday evening proved to be the only mild weather of the weekend (though an hour before our arrival there had apparently been a severe hailstorm), so having found the ‘Big Top’ it was time for a beer and a browse through the programme. A flick through the programme revealed that this year's timetable included around 160 performances, an indication of the pull of the festival. It read like a who’s who of comedy, featuring some of the top names in the industry to brand new fresh talent.
The Big Top served as a music venue throughout the weekend, and was also home to the Beech Bar and its gargantuan list of the 50 odd beers on offer. Alongside the main performance venues, there was also a tent dedicated to the children's programme and several food stalls dotted around to tickle the tastebuds. It would have been all too easy to get lost in the lazy sun of mid afternoon, the village was still so quiet, but as it approached 6pm, more people emerged for their first shows of the weekend.
With only 2 shows on the schedule for the Friday, we began with “Masterworks-In-Progress” (Part 1) from Nick Helm. This show took place in the 2nd smallest venue we attended over the course of the weekend. I would guess it sat around 40, and the intimacy created the perfect atmosphere for the weekend ahead, a weekend which turned out to be all about togetherness. The first hour went by in a flash, seeing Helm perform in such a small space was a treat and it was fascinating to see how differently he works in front of a small audience. What was instantly apparent, and remained so throughout the weekend, was the feeling that the comedians felt free to experiment; that the core values of the festival are embedded from the moment the town is set-up. The organisers say they aim for “comedians and comedy lovers have as much fun as possible in a creative, relaxed and experimental environment.” From this first hour watching Nick Helm, to our last hour on the Sunday night, this aim was not only apparent, it was at the very heart of the weekend.
We soon found ourselves rushing across town to the Powys room in the Owain Glyndwr Centre for Rachel Parris’ “Best Laid Plans”, a lighthearted hour of stand up and song, with an especially memorable song about going to the gym. The room was absolutely packed when we arrived, and the show was a complete contrast to our first hour. By 10pm we had completed our schedule for that evening; the air was warm and we strolled around snacking and drinking until the night grew dark. At this point we noticed the lack of barrier between performers and comedy lovers. The combination of mutual respect and friendliness was surprising coming from someone with a theatre background where audiences can be aggressive, ultimately forcing artistes to be reluctant and reclusive when off duty. When you look at London’s listings, and how fully booked comedians are, an event like MachFest is the perfect opportunity for them to see each other's work and socialise with each other. The acts are of course, aware of their fans, and are warm, friendly and approachable. As a result, it was pleasing to see audiences giving performers their own space to enjoy the festival atmosphere just as much, using the same facilities and attending the same shows without the fear of unwanted attention.
It was perhaps on waking the following morning that we realised why the comedians at almost every show asked who in the audience was camping, and laughed at the response. Mid-Wales camping in late April is not the warmest or kindest of climates! I'm not going to lie, both nights were absolutely Baltic, but compliments to Fred’s Yurts, (the affiliated company to the festival) they do all they can to try and help you keep warm…kettle stoves on hand for public use, hot water bottles, extra blankets…but at the end of the day, it's Wales in April showers season! Freezing nights are not all bad though. New friends were made around the stove, stories of shows and calamities shared by candlelight…it's all part of the experience. Not to mention the most attentive campsite hound, Syllas, who was a regular presence at our door!
Saturday was jam packed. An early breakfast and coffee to warm up, and we were off to the bank vault for an hour of stand-up for which the line up had not yet been announced.
We were treated to Will Duggan, Nat Metcalfe and Fern Brady, compered by Harriet Kemsley. The vault made for an interesting location. It held 20 audience members, tightly packed into what felt like a prison cell, and provided a different experience for audience and comedian alike. All the acts did a great job, it can't have been easy in a space (or lack of!) like that. Following this, we rushed to our only duo of the festival “Short & Curly”. ‘Short’ (Rebecca Shorrocks) and ‘Curly’ (Paul F Taylor) raced through an insanely surreal & highly enjoyable ‘night in’!
Later on in the day was Isy Suttie’s “The Actual One”, Nick Helm’s “Masterworks-in-Progress” (Part 2) and Rob Deering’s “Beat This”. The latter was our only panel show. Hosted by the very talented Deering, it featured Stuart Goldsmith, Josie Long, Nick Helm and Nat Metcalfe competing in pairs on musical topics. Watching comedians taking part was so enjoyable as they genuinely appeared to be enjoying the fun without the pressure of ‘being funny’, though of course, they were hilarious!
We rounded up Saturday night with the “Chang Lock-In”. Tickets were dished out via a photographic competition featuring yourself, some Chang beer and various hashtags. The collection of comedians on hand for this crazy 2 hours was Thom Tuck, Ahir Shah, Fern Brady and Nick Helm (again!), brilliantly compered by Ed Gamble. I have to say, I would never have thought a promotional campaign could flourish based on mockery and criticism but somehow, a week later, everyone is still talking about Chang Beer, which means ‘elephant’ by the way. Between jokes, drinks and countless puns, the lock-in had a wonderfully inclusive atmosphere. Accounts of the mishaps of the first day, chatting with your closest stranger and passing the drinks back; I would say it was about this time I realised you can't bottle the essence of MachFest, even with all those Chang bottles lying around.
The muddy road to the campsite, was even muddier on the Sunday morning heading into our final day. We were booked in for “Josh Widdicombe & Friends”, but it turned out Josh had to pull out of the festival last minute, and Nick Helm stepped in to serve as “clearly not a compere”, he said. Mike Bubbins and Rachel Parris were his ‘friends’, and the hour was a highly entertaining start to the day. From there we headed back to Y Plas for “The Collapse To Greatness” by Paul F Taylor where we were attacked by a three legged crow (known by most as a microphone stand), before rushing over to the Billiard Room for Ed Gamble’s work in progress show. As the rain continued to pour, we headed to our final solo show, Nick Helm’s “Can Somebody, For The Love Of God, Please Make All This Pain And Misery Go Away..?” at Y Tabernacl. We were lucky enough to sit in the front row, as we had done for his show on the Friday. It was almost like closing as we opened, and of course, it was a fantastic hour!
As the final sun went down, the queue built around the side of YPlas for “Pappy’s Presents: Secret Dudes Society”. This final bash started late but none of us cared at all. The vast majority of those who had performed over the weekend showed up to do something silly alongside the Pappy’s boys. The band was great, everyone was in a joyous high spirit and by midnight we had all had a good sing along and witness some foolish fun! It was the perfect boom to go out on!
MachFest is a wonderfully magical experience. I've never booked a hotel a year in advance before…I have now, and I couldn't agree more with Elis James who said on Radio 4 Extra’s coverage “…probably the happiest weekend of the year.”
To end with a fitting pun for this year, I'd say the whole bank holiday weekend was “Chang on!”