Seven Englishmen, an Essex girl and a Northern Irishman walk into a casino. Actually, the joke amongst the "Best of British" 5 Star Comedy Preview on Thursday night was the speed of SkyCity Theatre's lifts, but that's not quite as catchy.

Auckland is awash with travelling comics as the New Zealand International Comedy Festival whirls into life, and as seasoned connoisseurs, we realise there are some givens: the usual digs about travel, our accent, and Lord of the Rings. It was no surprise to hear them all rolled out here, but a delight to note some golden observations amongst the predictable.

Chris Martin (yes, he says, the last month has been hell. No, he doesn't know how Gwyneth is) was full of sharp insights. From a hairy situation with his new live-in girlfriend, to his intervention between Auckland and its sushi shop addiction - you could see the waves of recognition wash over the audience as the oh-so-likeable man-child coolly unleashed.

His laidback approach was complemented by the sweetly-posh John Robins and his "coffee ponce" jibes directed the way of the local audience, and the lone female, Sara Pascoe. Her's was a refreshing voice among the testosterone, and while her "retro" menstruation jokes might have made a number of men in the audience wince, this comedian/actress/writer's gentle coaxing of a gag was delightful.

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Like any comedy show these days, some of it was side-splitting stuff. And some of it was just grumpy, middle-aged men yelling at the audience.

Though exhausting to watch, Tim Fitzhigham personifies the manic Englishman role better than any other, while John Gordillo's take on his very loud, brash Spanish father literally turned him into a bellowing baby boomer.

And with a shouty song, and rumblings about jet lag, the lone Northern Irishman Michael Legge resembled a cranky toddler who couldn't quite remember why he was grumpy; making his impression of his enthusiastic American, super-fit wife all the funnier.

Like years before, the popular themes of this year's festival were quick to surface. Instead of the once prominent "kids and marriage" spiel, divorce is the new hot topic.

If he didn't paint a picture so well, you might suggest his mellow ramblings contributed to Carl Donnelly's recent marriage breakdown. It was a stark contrast to the last man up, Markus Birdman, whose overwhelming energy levels could have been his romantic downfall. The quick-fire conversationalist lunging around the stage and picking on a front-row 15-year-old while reliving his agony.

It can't be easy wrangling a bunch like this, but MC Stuart Goldsmith walked the line between council secretary and showcasing his own comedy chops rather nicely. Although if you spot him in a supermarket, watch out - the man's got a strange relationship with eggs.

All of the evening's participants have more shows - solo and as a package - in the festival. Seek them out, especially Martin, Pascoe and Goldsmith.

WHAT: 5 Star Comedy Preview
WHERE: SkyCity Theatre, Auckland
WHEN: April 23

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