Culture Tech Festival – a four-day digital business seminar cum arts festival in Derry~Londonderry – has this year invited Bright Club: Belfast to the maiden city for what turns out to be an intense evening of 'acadomedy'.
It’s the usual set up: a few jolly, mostly middle-aged lecturers from the University of Ulster and elsewhere joshing with their mates and a smattering of aspirational, perspirational comedians. It all ends with a sing-a-long.
The venue is markedly different this time. Bright Club is usually contained in the fetid bowels of Belfast’s Menagerie, with its naked light bulbs and teetering beer-tacky tables, but tonight we find ourselves in the Craft Village in what appears to be a village hall.
With its exposed, white washed beams, chintzy curtains and hard backed school chairs, it seems more appropriate to a Women’s Institute meeting than a display of hip academia. I look around for home made preserves...
As always with Bright Club, the academics have it best. They do this for a living (that is, talk to a room of people about a given subject). They can pick and choose from a lot of material with which they’re already familiar and, crucially, they don’t have to be funny. Therefore they can relax into an easy set, comfortable with what they’re doing.
The comedians, on the other hand, are here with the expressed intention of being funny and, given that Bright Club is themed, they need to pay lip service to a topic they wouldn’t ordinarily talk about.
Local boy compere and beard enthusiast Peter Davidson energises the crowd with whooping noises; buying laughs from audience members with £2.50 in loose change and bribing the children with Jaffa Cakes so that they don’t let on they heard swearing. The children happily comply.
First up is musician and self confessed 'Digital Ganch' Tracy Dempsey, who wades into the pit falls and peculiarities of the online experience with the gusto of a woman who has ingested a dodgy prawn and needs to get off the stage as soon as possible.
This, it transpires, is exactly what has happened. Yet Dempsey battles gamely on, dropping terms like 'solipstic interjection' (how reading internet messages in your own voice subconsciously makes you warm to the person who has sent it) and how she accidentally cyber-stalked a bearded, ex-alcoholic Scottish comedian with glasses. No clues there then.
Alan Hook bounds onto the stage next, all hair-gel and leathers, under a screen bearing the legend 'Sex and 2 Pac’s ghost'. He subsequently leads us on a journey into the darkest parts of the internet.
Hook is initially interested in the question of whether cyber sex when married constitutes infidelity, but by the time his argument has unravelled it has become a philosophical meditation on what sex means in a cyber world. If the physicality of the act has been removed, does this change our fundamental notions of what sex actually means? Not bad for ten minutes work.
After this long journey into night, Oonagh Murphy drags us into daylight again with an essay based upon Douglas Adams’ 'How I learned to stop worrying and love the internet'. She shows us all the things that have her loling: celebrities that look like mattresses, ugly renaissance babies and, of course, a website dedicated to cataloguing every nipple on display in the Met.
Fashion-forward film-maker Carol Murphy introduces her film Dear John with a screed of pure manifesto-ese: 'Film-making is like an elongated swoon,' she declaims. 'Making films is like seeking the love of someone you will never have.' The film is a narrative fashion reel, an 'artvert' for designer Asher Levine, played out with orange ping pong balls and sello-tape.
Derry comedian Adam Laughlin (pictured above – see video below) finishes the show with a ukulele and a series of terrible, punning knock knock jokes, quipping that for a show about the digital age, here is is performing using an acoustic instrument!
Laughlin's rationale for this is that he learned to play from instructional videos on the internet. The main body of his set is comprised of references to Bill and Ted, Knightrider and The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane in a series of unlikely scenarios. This is geek comedy in excelsis and perfectly targeted toward its audience.
Admittedly, tonight isn’t the best Bright Club I’ve ever been to. There is a lot of hearty chuckling and gentle ribbing from the audience, who all seem to know each other. In many ways it is like being trapped at a dinner party where everybody is forced to get up and do a turn.
The next one, back in the Menagerie, should be a return to form. It seems that Bright Club: Belfast, like Guinness or the Titanic, doesn’t necessarily travel that well.