In Oriel College, Harry Househam and Alex Yarrow, the organisers behind College Comedy Nights, are faced with doubt as to whether they will be able to bring a stage into the bar. They’re used to adapting to different performance spaces and circumstances, as would be expected from an organisation that relies on their ability to find somewhere to perform in any college, but this seems to be a unique difficulty never faced before. Oxford colleges are weird places with weird rules, and bringing performances into their bars or JCRs or… anywhere really, is in part a challenge of fitting the hilarity on offer around some occasionally frankly bizarre dictates.
Househam and Yarrow established College Comedy Nights in a bid to bring together comedy performers and potential audiences. They explain to me that in their time performing on the comedy circuit in Oxford – which is how the pair met – they’ve noticed that although there’s a lot of comedy being performed, a lot of the time potential audience members just don’t realise that it’s happening. For this reason they’ve set up a “Comedy in Oxford” Facebook group to detail the various events going on around the city, but College Comedy Nights takes an even bigger step towards uniting performers with willing attendees by bringing the comedy into the places at the heart of Oxford students’ lives.
But the venture isn’t just about supply meeting demand – the comedy nights are run not for profit, but to raise money for mental health charity Mind. When asked how Mind came to be selected as the charity of choice, Househam observes that ‘Mental health seems to be an issue that comedians and students alike care very deeply about.’ Certainly most students in Oxford seem either to have had mental health struggles themselves, or have been touched by those of people around them. As a comedy fan as well as someone struggling with mental illness, I personally have to say it seems an ideal combo, and doubtless one that will appeal to many other students as well.
Obviously raising money for charity is always a wonderful thing to do, but, for a group claiming to bring the best in comedy to Oxford students, a more cynical question looms – are they any good? I go along to the Oriel Comedy Night (fear not, they got the stage in after all!) to find out.
One of the greatest strengths of the comedy night is the variety in the performances and styles – it’d be fair to say there was something for almost anyone at the night I attended, and for those with varied comedic tastes it’s an absolute delight. There’s character comedy, observational comedy, and cool feminist comedy courtesy of cool feminist Anna Dominey. The comedians are extraordinarily talented – you can tell by how skilfully they deal with the presence of drunk hacklers on the front row (seriously, get your shit together Oriel) of which there are several. There’s also a decent amount of comedy with zero regard for the fourth wall; I’m unused to being singled out as a reviewer in front of an audience, but to be honest at this point I’ll take it as a long overdue puncturing of my easily inflated ego.
The performers vary from comedy night to comedy night, so there’s little fear of getting the same show twice if you fancied gate-crashing a show at a friend’s college. After seeing how capably the organisers dealt with some of the challenges of staging a performance in a college unaccustomed to hosting such events, I am convinced that they could adapt to putting on a show almost anywhere. The only question that remains is when I can get them to come to my college; I’m sure we’ll be more than happy to have a stage in the bar.