In June 2017, my wife Davinia was invited to attend a conference in Budapest, Hungary. Since I had never visited the famed bohemian city known as the Little Paris of Middle Europe, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and tag along. Over the next few posts on the Strange & Ordinary, you can read about some of my highlights from our 4-night stay.
Day 2 – Brody Studios
Searching for a few of the more unusual things to do in Budapest, I came across an interesting Insider’s Cultural Guide of the city on the Guardian website. Among its list of To Dos, the guide recommends visiting Brody Studios, a venue it describes as being “Budapest’s multicultural bohemian hub.” It also alleges that here you can find “Hollywood actors hobnobbing with local artists and culture aficionados.” Needless to say, my interest was piqued.
Brody Studios is a members-only arts club complete with bar and diner, but the venue also hosts a number of events open to the non-member public. Open, that is, to those already somewhat in the know, as the club doesn’t seem to openly advertise their events outside of their own social media channels. Browsing the venue’s website, I saw there was to be a stand-up comedy night the following eve which non-members could attend. Fortuitous timing! Tickets were limited though. I hastily emailed Brody Studios and was in luck; two tickets would be waiting for me at the door.
“We look forward to welcoming you to Brody Studios.”
When Davinia and I arrived at Vörösmarty Utca 38 in Budapest’s VI District the following evening, I was almost certain I had made another Google Maps blunder. This was a dull and dusty grey street, hardly a fitting location for a colourful arts hub. Suddenly, a bit further down from where we were standing, two trendy looking gents pulled up in a taxi, walked up to a nondescript door and rang the bell. They muttered something over the intercom and were buzzed in. A warm wave of chatter and jazz music flowed out of the open door. Shut closed behind them, the street fell into that particular drone of distant people and traffic that is urban silence. This had to be the place.
Following suit, we rang the bell and entered. It was like we had walked straight through the wardrobe into Narnia, albeit a far more fashionable and bohemian Narnia.
The inside of the building effused fin de siècle decadence with quasi-Cuban vibrancy. As we picked up our tickets and walked further inside, we took it all in. The stairwell, adorned with bold lavish graffiti of entwined bodies and limbs. The bar, lit up in glowing coloured gels, all reds and greens and blues. There were empty bottles and bric-à-brac on the windowsills. Vintage posters and modern illustrations of all sizes and styles hung on the decaying walls. Every nook and cranny of this carefully curated club was worthy of inspection and admiration.
We bought our drinks and found a couple of empty cushioned chairs in the central courtyard, the official venue of the evening’s entertainment. A quick glance around revealed there were no Hollywood celebs in our presence. Oh well!
The comedy night itself was a blast. There is something extra thrilling about live comedy when you don’t know who the acts are. The awkwardness of getting to know a comic’s style and whether they are actually any good, plus the collective relief and surprise when jokes do land is a somewhat unique performance experience. Nothing can go quite as off the rails as live comedy.
Three British comics took to the stage who were all unknown to me. Nigel Williams, the compère for the evening, did a great job of warming up the audience with a mix of crowd work and light Eurocentric material. As Williams’ banter brought to light, the audience itself was a globetrotting mixed bag of locals and tourists. There were of course Hungarians present, but also Americans, Australians, Brits, Germans, Swedes, and even a couple of humble Maltesers.
The opening act was Scottish comedian Neil Macfarlane, who despite some microphone glitches delivered a decent set. I feel that some of the audience were not entirely following due to his rather thick Scottish accent though. Also segments of his material were maybe too regional for such a diverse crowd. There was a whole bit centered around the BBC complaints department, which while excellent, didn’t land as well as it deserved based on the scattered pockets of laughter.
Main act Alan Francis – another Scotsman, accent more genteel – was a different beast entirely. You know you’re in for a real comedic joyride when you sense how at ease a stand-up is as soon as he sets foot on even the most paltry of stages. From the get-go Francis had the audience in hysterics. During his thirty-minute set, Francis seamlessly segued from tales of pub bust-ups to the narcolepsy inducing tones of Church hymns to the skewed logic of jihadis. He came across as a posh befuddled drunk, but there was a well of wit and sobering sensitivity just beneath the almost absurdist surface. I can genuinely say it’s the hardest I’ve laughed at a comedy act in some time. Of course, the booze and jovial atmosphere helps, but Francis’ set was so well-crafted and delivered in such eccentric fashion, it was impossible not to be charmed. He left the stage to uproarious applause and I was left wondering how he isn’t a household name in the UK. Live at the Apollo, give the guy a call!
Since we needed to wake up early the next morning, we decided to call it a night. As our taxi whisked us back to the hotel, heady from a cocktail of alcohol, laughter, and the warm summer night, we felt as if we were slipping out of a secret magical Budapest that might have all been a dream.