As the Viking longship smouldered just a few hundred yards away, for some of those not in a squad or off to a hall for the night it proved to be well worth paying a trip to the Garrison Theatre on Tuesday evening for the first ever Up-Helly-A’-themed comedy night.
It was a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable night from start to finish, with Unst-based Glaswegian and experienced stand-up comedian Sandy Nelson at the helm to introduce a trio of local comedians, Les Sinclair, Katrina Anderson and Clint Watt.
The day had been Nelson’s first ever experience of the procession and he was relieved to learn that most of the audience had been there to witness it too, he said, as they would be well used to seeing five minutes-worth of entertainment spun out over a full hour. Certain aspects of the festival were only too familiar to the comic – after all, he had seen plenty of modes of transport on fire and menacing youngsters wielding weapons in the streets of his native city.
While the night was loosely based on Up-Helly-A’, that did not stop Nelson straying into more general observations from his six months living here, and he has found us friendly Shetlanders to be masters of the art of complaining. Before moving here, he had been unaware of what this “Mareel” they kept writing about actually was but, such was the outpouring of vitriol he read in the letters pages of The Shetland Times, he had reached the conclusion that it must be some kind of a grave threat to the population – a prison for paedophiles or an Al Qaeda training camp, perhaps.
Sinclair then treated us to an affable and amusing, frequently Abba-referencing discussion of Nordic history, while Anderson regaled us with a few witty tales about her experiences working as a tourist guide. It would surprise few to learn that Germans are very good time-keepers and Italians less so, but we were also tickled to hear of some of the misconceptions visitors to these parts appear to harbour – none more so than those who were enthralled to have seen all those penguins at Sumburgh Head …
There had been criticism, our compère for the evening said, from some in the community of this show before it had even happened, with umbrage being taken at the idea of an uppity soothmoother having the gall to take on a festival about which its supporters are fiercely protective. But while he didn’t pull any punches, Nelson managed the delicate balancing act for an incomer of good-naturedly poking fun at Up-Helly-A’ without appearing too disrespectful.
Watt’s often hilarious 10-minute slot, meanwhile, was somewhat bolder in taking on the hallowed festival, asking what people would think if the good citizens of Orkney were to march through the streets of Kirkwall boasting square moustaches and demonstrating Hitler salutes, a not-so-barbed reference to the rather dubious heritage of the Viking invaders upon which Up-Helly-A’ is based. Referring to the acceptable limits of comedy in this community, he said any sign of moral outrage seemed to vanish once a year: “Anything goes if you’re dressed like a transvestite prostitute”.
All in all, the varied brands of humour seemed universally to go down a storm with a near-capacity audience, and it was both unusual and refreshing to hear stand-up comedy delivered in a Shetland accent. Nelson’s embryonic efforts to stimulate and encourage the beginnings of a stand-up scene in the isles appear to be progressing well and it is to be hoped that this kind of thing will become a regular occurrence.