Josh Earl vs The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Cookbook left me feeling much the same way I did when my Mum used to make my birthday cakes from the well-loved cookbook of the show’s title. I wanted it to be so good, I was so excited about it, I knew it had been made with love and care but…it just wasn’t as good in real life as it looked on paper.
Don’t get me wrong, Melbourne’s Earl is a funny, self-deprecating and whimsical comedian (just as my Mum was a wonderful, if not at times overexcitable baker and cake-decorator: hi Mum!) but a lack of finesse and some first night jitters meant Earl’s comedy did not always rise to the occasion.
If you’ll let me indulge the cake-making analogy for a little bit longer…All the ingredients were there for “Josh Earl vs…” to be a standout part of the Brisbane Powerhouse’s Comedy Festival. Earl has a real appreciation for, and knowledge of his subject matter (covering all 103 delicious cakes in the original book, as well as some of the stranger options in the second and third incarnations). Scanned pictures from the original cookbook flash up on a screen behind Earl, eliciting delighted gasps from the audience as we recalled that birthday party when we had the train/ballerina/swimming pool cake (with the jelly water, remember it?).
Songs about the cakes of his own childhood and anecdotes of his mother’s baking successes are genuinely funny and show Earl at his strongest. But things fall down when he veers into topics like sport, driving and letter writing to Ita Buttrose (although the “typewriter” he uses is a wonderful surprise. I won’t spoil it). The Monty Python-esque “advertisements” also fall flat and just make for awkward breaks in the live action.
It’s fair to say that if you’ve never spent a lazy afternoon dreaming over your Mum’s copy of The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Cookbook, you just won’t “get” this show, and that’s another ingredient Earl has working in his favour. His audience knows and loves the subject matter, and they are ready to connect and laugh with him over such a quintessential part of an Australian childhood. One woman had even bought along her own copy of the book, something I bet will happen every night of this show.
But with this pack of absolute cake fans in front of him, Earl’s half-hearted, clumsy attempts at audience interaction are disappointing. Very early on in the show, he asks the audience to yell out the cakes they’ve had made for them in childhood, or the cakes they’ve made for their own children. Though we might have been an eager crowd, people are still people, and we’re bound to be a bit shy about yelling things out in a room full of strangers. I wish Earl had taken that into account by giving us a more comfortable way to get involved and take the walk down memory lane with him.
As reticent as we were to yell out in the beginning, the audience for Josh Earl vs The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Cookbook definitely weren’t afraid to chatter excitedly amongst ourselves and to laugh and clap along during the final song. Excitement rose to sugar-filled childhood birthday party levels while Earl sung about the final 20 or so cakes he hadn’t already covered. This finale is a skilled piece of writing and ties everything up quite nicely, leaving you with a good feeling of nostalgia. Like the Dolly Dress Cake of my 8th birthday, parts of this show were a little wonky (sorry Mum) but, in the end, the icing helped to hide a lot of the flaws.
Josh Earl Vs. the Australian Women’s Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book
BRISBANE COMEDY FESTIVAL
Venue: Turbine Rehearsal Room, Brisbane Powerhouse
Dates/Times: Tuesday – Sunday, March 9 – 14, 8.00pm
Tickets: Adult $20, Concession $17, Preview (Tuesday March 9) all tix $15
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL COMEDY FESTIVAL
Dates/Times: Thursday 25th March – Sunday 18th April (not Mondays), 7pm
Venue: Swiss Club, 89 Flinders Lane
Tickets: Full $19-22, Conc $17.50-$19
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 660 013 | www.comedyfestival.com.au