English Comedian Of The Year 2015 final

Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Udderbelly, London

There are a lot of new act competitions. Too many, almost certainly. But the English Comedian Of The Year places no restrictions on experience, and because of its valuable prize – a trip to the Australian festivals – and the kudos of the title, it attracts well-established circuit acts alongside relative newcomers.

So we have Alistair Barrie, 15 or so years in the business, rubbing shoulders with Lauren Pattinson, a newbie who’s also a finalist in the Chortle Student Comedy Awards this year. Yet the field is levelled to some degree by the newer acts being more hungry, and more used to a performing in ten-minute chunks.

This year’s final, again in the South Bank’s Udderbelly, is compered by Andrew Maxwell, an impartial Irishman doing excellent crowd work, even with a crowd reluctant to be worked. The sound technician tried hard too, playing pounding high-energy tracks to introduce the acts. Opening act Amir Khoshsokhan took to the stage to the Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up, a song whose aggressive swagger couldn’t be less appropriate for his mild-mannered persona.

This meek and mild comic tells his stories slowly, quietly, deliberately. His gags portray him as something of a thoughtless oaf in his relationship, entirely at odds with his low-status hushed delivery. The quietness leads to a build-up of anticipation that he’ll say something funny, dissipated with the reward of careful payoffs, which are strictly rationed. It is all about the build, and a comically satisfying conclusion, when all his strands come together in a neat bundle of callbacks. His set is almost a kitchen-sink drama in its portrayal of a moribund relationship; dryly funny if short on rip-roaring moments.

Andy Watson, in contrast, seemed almost a parody of bad observational comedy, with barely a smidgeon of authenticity in a routine that seemed to be mechanically recovered from the bones of those who have gone before him. And if you’re going to channel Lee Evans, it’s probably not the smartest idea to do a routine based on Bohemian Rhapsody… His physically, though forced, has a bold energy, but this feels to much like an example of stand-up learned by the book (or by the comedy course) with precious little personality beneath the weight of formulaic ‘what’s the deal with?’ style routines.

Next up, the more experienced hands of James Dowdeswell, making his second appearance in the final of this competition and clearly very relaxed about being here. Perhaps a bit too relaxed, for the occasion demanded more punch than his gentle charm provided. He paints a witty picture of the quirks of remote West Country life, his own physical frailties, and – a clear highlight – the pointlessness of gym exercises, which could be seen as payback for the jocks who made his young life unhappy. But his engaging self-deprecation and wry commentary falls short of the killer routine you need to win events like this, even if he is good company.

In this smart three-piece suit, debonaire Al Barrie could reclaim the word ‘dapper’ from you-know-who. He’s got classy material to match the look, starting with a couple of spontaneous gags just for tonight before moving on to discussing the upper-middle-class background from whence he came. Mocking this demographic can be easy, but he avoided laziness (not a single mention of hummus) in his droll, authentic descriptions. Barrie’s strongest hand, however, is politics, evoking a stupid French voice and a description of David Cameron you’ll never be able to scour from your memory, in an admirably ambitious section on global affairs. After his ten minutes were up, he was clearly the one to beat.

And immediately he was beaten. Although Brennan Reece didn’t immediately look like a winner; purposefully blipping his stopwatch into action like Henning When, joking about ‘completing the internet’ as if that was a new turn of phrase and talking about nightclub pulling.

But it takes less than a minute to be won over by his camp charm, excitable energy, and densely-packed set, with gags tumbling out thick and fast. He keeps surprising with his ambiguous sexuality and sense of not quite belonging in an alpha-male world… not in a shy, awkward way but celebrating his individuality. Jokes are hallmarked with creative use of language, and the unstoppable force which drives them in a powerfully entertaining performance. This is why he’ll be heading down under.

In contrast Ben Briggs offers a blacker humour, repeatedly tells us how dark he’s going to be, which isn’t really needed. In reality, it’s only the closing gag about the Germanwings crash that’s in utterly bad taste, and notable mostly for that audacity than any piercing humour. Otherwise, he takes a sneering ‘you might as well all kill yourselves’ style rant against the world, while the most offensive thing is how patronising he can accidentally be to his audience, asking: ‘Older people, do you know what Facebook is?’ when it’s hardly the exclusive, impenetrable hangout of the youth he imagines. He’s a solid act, though, but just not a stand-out among tonight’s 11.

Facebook exchanges also took up a part of Jake Lambert’s set, although it’s a real-world anecdote, about a prank he played on his flatmate when he brought a girl home that trumps any online activities. He’s a real mixed bag, with that closing story diluted by the preceding material, containing too many cliched lines about how young he looks and too many tricks drawn from the Mark Watson bag of lively self-deprecation and social awkwardness. He’s one of tonight’s newer acts and needs to develop a more distinctive style away from the style that’s already prevalent among his peers, but sure had potential.

Similar caveats apply to Lauren Pattison, who also kicked off with quips about her young looks, as well as comments about how her current drama degree is sure to lead to a starring role on the dole queue. There are some nice lines as she talks about her transition to adult life, about the time she posed as a teenage mum in her native Newcastle and, inevitably, about Tinder, though the set could be tighter. She didn’t quite build up the momentum, nor enough of a rapport with the audience, to sell her material to its best advantage, but she’s very watchable.

Quips about his lack of chin and a couple of bold puns, funny as they are, don’t really set the audience up for Chris Turner’s great skill: freestyle rapping. He’s a weedy white guy with a clear English accent so, as he points out, expectations are low. Yet he can do the business, improvising smart rhymes about a basket of disparate subjects suggested by the audience, stronger both technically and in the quality of gags than the similar Abandoman, though not quite with the same charisma. It’s a rare and impressive improvisational talent, and real crowd-pleasing one, which secured him second place, pushing Barrie down to third.

Few acts could follow that, and Brummie Nick Clarke was especially ill-equipped. He has a larger-than-life personality but only the weakest material to back it up, starting with a gag from the internet but largely centring his set on porn. Unfortunately he has little to say on the subject beyond a laddish description of its consumption. Clarke seemed oblivious to the ennui overcoming the audience as he pushed on with this dull discourse, and persisted with his incessant imploring: ‘Give me a cheer if…’ to kick off every session, even when greeted with virtual silence every time. Not good.

Finally Patrick Draper, who will be remembered for the props that illustrated his final joke, the lengths he’d gone to in expanding on a simple observation becoming the punchline more than the starting point. Before this, the generally deadpan set was a mixed bag; ranging from a wry commentary on the dearth of tourist attractions in his Hull hometown to more predictable jokes about masturbation. And while his unenthusiastic style has a nice, unhurried rhythm, the strength of the payoffs are not quite worth the wait getting to them. He’s another act who can be classed as ‘in development’ more than being a genuine contender for the grand title of ‘English Comedian Of The Year’.

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Published: 14 Jul 2015

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