For a reviewer, being in the front row is a terrifying prospect. So, when I was herded into the front row of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival show Onwards & Upwards, and seated almost directly in front of the show’s star, Dave Thornton, a man known for his audience interaction, I was pretty worried.

Thankfully, Thornton focused his laser sights on the people around me, and the first fifteen minutes of the show were a raucous delight as he moved from person to person to find the most interesting scenario to play off. The guy in the front row – on a date, working in commerce – was quickly dropped for a middle aged mother slash retired primary school teacher there with her two mid-20s children – and she delighted in saying things to make both of them uncomfortable. The mother was forgotten once Thornton discovered a group of bankers from ANZ and their unwanted banker companion Les, who stole the show with some of his later heckling.

Only once Thornton ran out of steam with the bankers did he move on from the audience to his scripted show, which while terribly amusing, was also pretty safe.

As a relatively new dad, the majority of Thornton’s show revolved around ‘adult’ things like taking care of his daughter and doing his will. Still, it takes great skill to make these mundane tasks amusing, and Thornton did his very best to drag every laugh out of his preparation for his inevitable death, and an anxiety-inducing story about dropping his iPhone on his daughter’s still-soft newborn head (she’s fine).

The highlight of Onwards & Upwards was Thornton’s well-choreographed rant, a series of complaints about adulthood – tax, housing, retirement, the complaints of baby boomers, etc. etc. – which was a delight to listen to. It can be difficult to be angry during a comedy show and still come across as empathetic, but Thornton hit every note of his rant and finished it up to a raucous audience response.

From there Thornton moved on to some of 2017’s common Melbourne International Comedy Festival Topics – Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian – and briefly showed off his skills with those familiar topics.

To round out, he brought a sombre tone to the show and discussed his – incredibly drunk, post-footy-final – interaction with a Muslim woman at a train station, where even in his inebriated state he realised how unafraid he was of being alone, in the dark, surrounded by screaming people, and how different it was for her to exist in this world. All he did was smile at her and share a connection over some people yelling in the distance, but it was an important and compassionate note to end the show on, and really brought a close feeling of community to everyone in the room.

Thornton – calling himself Thorno at the opening of the show – has a wonderful friendly air to his performances, honed most likely by his work on TV and radio, and really excels at making everyone feel welcome, even while he picks on them in tried and true stand-up fashion. Onwards & Upwards is like being in a bar listening to a friend talk about his weekend, safe and familiar, but still tinged with hilarity that can only come from a long career in comedy.

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