You Must Be Joking Final 2014
Finals of new act competitions should be great gigs, even if the journey there is difficult. But last night’s final of You Must Be Joking! at the Newbury Corn Exchange was a slog for all concerned. The audience numbered 50 or so, in a theatre that could hold eight times that amount, and they were a crowd at that. One woman even refused to divulge her name to compere Matt Richardson – a former winner of this very title – which became a running joke, but only served to highlight how unforthcoming was this Wednesday-night market-town crowd – comprising mainly of accountants, or so it seemed.
Even the songs of opening act Andy Holloway weren’t enough to spark them into life. However behind the appeal any tune holds, the comic value of both numbers he performed was dubious. The first, about his homeland of Guernsey was full of all the cousin-fucking cliches you could want; while the second over-played its sincere set-up about his love for a TV personality with a very long build-up that merely revealing the name could never compensate for. There were glimmers of something more promising in the ‘freestyle’ section, with his exhortations for the audience to wave their hands in the air falling on deaf ears, but he generally plays if too safe – and too familiar – to be interesting.
Second up, Jack Campbell, who won the English Comedian Of The Year contest just days ago. Yet although he is nominally the best act in the country, the warped logic of such things means he simultaneously couldn't get a top-two place in one Berkshire town. He’s got some good lines, from attending a fifth-rate university to ragging on the Swiss, but the audience lethargy seemed contagious and he couldn’t quite make anything zing. The material’s decent, but not brilliant, yet seemed more fragile than it needs be in this tough room.
Jake Lambert had some brilliant one-liners that suggests he’s probably a Twitter feed worth following. Ultimately his writing talents will surely prevail, and there are certainly some very quotable gags in his set, but the hit-and-miss nature never built up the required momentum tonight. And when it came to the longer-form, more conversational gags, his abilities seemed diluted.
Stella Graham is not a natural performer, with a stilted delivery and over-studied rhythm that telegraphs punchlines, many of which deride her native Coventry. Like most on the bill tonight, she has some decent lines, but also some that almost fall into ‘dad joke’ territory. She might get away with were the performance not so mechanical; even though she seems affable enough, the audience can’t quite relax into the idea this is natural conversation, the essential artifice of stand-up.
Peter Beckley had the sweet spot immediately post-interval, with notably more relaxed audience, and made the most of it. He certainly has a head-start with his distinctive look, cultivated to be part-troll, part-Wolverine. Beckley makes the odd joke about his appearance, but it is more than that – his aspect informs an otherworldly aura that lends weight to his complaints about his failings with women, or not quite fitting in to our, human, world. He has a couple of damp squibs, to be sure, but his best material has an unexpected twist that secured him first place.
Sean Downie, on the other hand, is just dull. A Kiwi with a slightly camp attitude he spoke for his allotted time with a mildly sarcastic tone of voice, which simply isn’t enough. There’s not a single real joke in his critically underpowered set, and while he might be fit a cookie-cutter radio presenter job, as a comic he has nothing to offer but on-stage confidence, despite being in the game a good six years.
I also find little to commend in Hilary Fox, thought he audience certainly like her. She’s a woman with a ukulele who signs dirty versions of pop songs all about masturbation and vibrators. Her point of difference is that on the surface she appears frumpy, but that unlikely juxtaposition isn’t enough to disguise the unimaginative nature of her set. She even admits to having googled euphemisms for female self-love; and just reading out phrases she’s seen online gets her a laugh. She even cracks the ‘available for children’s parties’ line. Unrelenting hackery, but sadly effective.
Don Tran is the converse, all content over style; a dry one-line merchant who always fights shy of putting any emotion into his gags, hoping the writing will speak for itself. About half the time it does, with a good measure of great jokes, including the best one of the night. But there are duds too, when his lack of energy leaves them exposed. Only rare geniuses like Stephen Wright can get away with this complete detachment, and Tran isn’t there yet. A close second to Beckley was the right result.
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