LAURA CARTLEDGE: Petworth has the last laugh in festival fun

Crochet dining tables, meerkat javelin throwers and The Merchant of Petworth were just some of the subjects tackled by Paul Merton and his improv chums this week.

The performance was part of the brilliant Petworth Festival; however it had to be staged in Midhurst in order to find a venue big enough to cope with ticket demand.

That in itself got a little ribbing, too.

It was the second time I’d seen the comedy quintet and I was a little bit apprehensive, if I am really honest.

I mean my first encounter was hilarious, until Tuesday it held the title of the funniest thing I’d seen.

The details do elude me a bit.

I’m pretty sure there was something hilarious involving a panda.

All I do know is I laughed so hard I cried, my ribs hurt and my face ached.

But I couldn’t help wondering how improvised it could be, feared that another visit would see the same jokes might creep in and the illusion would be broken.

It wasn’t. In fact my partner argued it was better.

The only thing is, it is very hard to explain just how good it was. That, for me, is very much the beauty of it.

It is very much a ‘you need to be there’ thing, which I realise makes it a funny topic for a column.

Not that I’ve ever let that stop me.

The show has sections to it, a series of games if you will, and many include audience suggestions – which is how the Shakespeare finale came to be The Merchant of Petworth.

While a call for scenarios at the interval saw someone write the ‘River Rother Raft Race’ on a slip of paper, to much amusement from the 500-strong crowd.

It was also our task to come up with a ridiculous job for Paul Merton, which he had to guess from clues acted out by the co-stars.

How we got to him working at an underground airport in Iceland as a bird-scarer – who used olive stones to deter eagles – I’m not sure.

And it still amazes me that Paul managed to get it.

Once I’d wiped the mascara runs from my cheeks and wound my way back home, it struck me not just how great the show was, but how much kudos the festival deserves as a whole.

I was lucky enough to get a preview by interviewing the artistic director, Stewart Collins, for July’s etc Magazine.

He said then that he was keen for people to ‘use the festival as a chance to see something you normally wouldn’t’.

As a result the programme worked to cater for the ‘loyal and demanding classical audience’ as well as working to ‘shine a light on the different forms’.

Running from July 15 to August 1, there were 40 events over the fortnight, and alas I booked a badly-timed holiday meaning I could only enjoy the final stages.

I’m already keen not to make the same mistake next year.

Even on the one night, I could feel the buzz in the air.

The excitement and appreciation is flying from all angles.

As Stewart put it, it is ‘a beautiful place for a festival’ as ‘people have a thirst for it’.