XS Malarkey is a giant of the Manchester comedy scene. For nineteen years it has prided itself on charging low prices, showcasing the very best in comedy acts, and remaining a welcoming place for new acts to try out their skills on a friendly audience willing to give them a chance. Given that philosophy, it’s little wonder it has picked up so many awards along the way.
For this, their nineteenth birthday celebration, they offered up a special – and completely secret – triple-headlined treat. Three headlining acts, with strings of awards and TV appearances between them. A packed venue, all wondering who would be their entertainment for the night. The answer did not disappoint.
Opening the show was Nathan Caton. With a slew of TV and radio appearances under his belt, from Mock the Week to Live at the Apollo, the award-winning comedian begins the show with a skilful display of well-judged and intelligent satirical comedy. His material takes us on a tour of well-trodden topics for politically-tinged comics; Brexit, Isis, the US elections, but Caton weaves these topics together with his own personal life and experiences to deliver something fresh. Hammersmith-born, with West Indian roots, Caton delivers a view of these lofty political issues from the ground. Race, politics and identity play into Caton’s material, with discussion of his family and personal life within these issues keeping the material warm, personal and engaging.
In a sudden about-face, Spencer Jones took the middle slot. Fresh from his role as a suspiciously Ricky Gervais-like version of Will Kempe in BBC2’s Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow, the co-creator of CBBC’s Big Babies delivers a ridiculous, surreal and downright strange show. A mixture of prop comedy, parody and bizarre, self-aware character moments, Jones’ show couldn’t be further away from Caton’s smart, down-to-earth style, but this disconnect served only to enhance the strangeness of the material. Inflatable trousers, tape loops and doodles on his own body deliver the kind of childish giggles and belly laughs that few comedians successfully tap into.
Finally, Mark Watson closed the festivities. Between his many Radio 4 series and countless TV appearances, Watson’s observational style is slick and well-developed. His repeated ramblings, distracted tangents and running commentary on his own material cultivates a deliberate air of sloppiness and confusion, which serves to make his observations that little bit more endearing and personal. How much is scripted and how much improvised will, I suspect, always be a mystery, both to the audience and probably to Watson himself. In any case, despite Watson’s repeated claims to the contrary, his amiable, slightly haphazard style is a perfect fit for XS Malarkey’s nineteenth birthday bash. Here’s to the next nineteen years!