Funny Women Final 2005
Note: This review is from 2005
If the Funny Women competition gets much more successful, it could put itself out of business.
For however noble the intentions behind such an endeavour, there remains the nagging feeling it exists because female stand-ups need some sort of concessions; that they can’t perform on a par with the men.
But based on the ten acts in the third Funny Women final, such special treatment is unnecessary. I’d be surprised, and impressed, if this summer’s other main contests threw up a line-up as diverse and strong as this, male or female.
Debra-Jane Appelby set the bar high from the get-go, so high in fact that no one could top her when it came to crowning the queen of comedy at the night’s end.
She’s a no-nonsense Yorkshire lass, blunt and sarcastic in a take-it-or-leave-it kind of way. ‘I eat like a pig and don’t give a shit’ is not only her punchline, but her philosophy in a nutshell.
Her strength is in performance, confident, punchy and owing a nod to the old fashioned Northern club circuit. There’s a touch, perhaps, of the Peter Kay about this – even if her tell-it-like-it-is outlook leans more towards Johnny Vegas’s.
Her observations are on the nose, if not always startlingly original. A big part of her set – and her entire impending Edinburgh show, judging from the blurb – is based on the idea that the 21st century isn’t the gleaming space-age nirvana we were promised by Tomorrow’s World; a premise that’s certainly been knocked around before, however well she executes it.
Wendy Wasson couldn’t hope to compete with Appelby’s energy and audience connection, even though she’s a former actress.
Like many thesps, she delivers her act from behind the safety of that invisible a fourth wall, never really breaching it to give us a glimpse of the real her. Her choice of topics doesn’t always help in this respect, either, especially when she talks about the experiences of hanging out with other comedians – who cares?
There are, nonetheless, a few good, straightforward jokes in here, and a neat callback to wrap up the set very tidily – but there was just not quite enough to stand out among this talented line-up.
Newbie Emma Fryer certainly impressed, even though she was performing only her fifth gig. Hers is an odd, mad routine running brilliantly against the grain and producing laughs from the most unexpected of places.
Very tall and very blonde, she says she often gets mistaken for a transvestite, but her set is far more eclectic than the straightforward ‘what do I look like?’ fare - most notably she probably the only stand-up to do an extended routine about the novels of Catherine Cookson.
On the debit side, she’s a propensity to over-reach her ideas, meandering off on lengthy imaginings without a punchline in sight. But after a few months on the circuit, where such indulgence is not so easily tolerated, she should have edited her set into a quirky, original offering.
Becky Love starts very modestly, banging on about her small breasts for awhile before picking up a guitar for a jolly pun-riddled ditty about shagging a dog – the canine sort. It’s not particularly edifying.
But slowly, almost imperceptivity, she wins people over. Sure, it’s formulaic stuff, putting filthy thoughts to music, but it works very effectively – even if a song about ‘I don’t want to take it up the arse tonight’ looks, on paper, like the height of tired hackery, in execution it’s great fun.
There’s a touch of Pam Ayres to her poem about a blow-up doll, as well as the almost obligatory nod to Victoria Wood’s style in her music, though Love’s act is definitely a post-watershed version of these esteemed forebears.
She’s unashamedly crowd-pleasing, and as such, job done.
Sarah Millcan is at the opposite end of the spectrum. She’s softly-spoken (with a seductively lilting gentle North-Eastern accent), cool, calm and collected, and talks maturely about her life.
She paints a delightful picture of her domestic situation, recently divorced and living back home with her mother and father – a man with an uncanny knack to be utterly heartless by complete accident. You can just imagine the sitcom...
It’s assured, accomplished stuff – though less so when it comes to the final routine about words printed on underwear – and I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more of it on the circuit, especially given her runner-up position on the night.
Kicking off the second half, Warrington girl Jude Mahon makes much of exaggerating her accent and playing up a few stereotypes about thieving Scousers, scally Mancs and arrogant Londoners.
However, most of her routine is more personal, concentrating on tales about her deaf brother, Damian. It’s quite interesting, but not all that funny, and she does make rather too much of it, giving the impression she’s a one-gag act.
The frightfully well-spoken Helen Keen aims for a darkly surreal set, kicking off with a distinctively odd routine about clowns and serial killers. Again, though, she has trouble in generating any laughs from the products of her troubled imagination; with the biggest guffaw actually coming courtesy of a picture caption written by a News Of The World sub-editor.
She seems to have little confidence in her own set-ups – a feeling which quickly rubs off onto the audience – and is just too waffly with them, making it all-too easy to switch off.
Julie Jepson, in contrast, takes instant control of the audience. She’s animated, conversational and has that oomph needed to take a crowd along with her – she would make a natural compere.
Material-wise, though, she’s left wanting. Some of it is too narrow, like the overextended foreign language routine, while the rest is too hacky – please spare us from any more comics who do routines about what you can’t take onto aircraft, after telling us which celebrities they vaguely resemble.
Ruth Bratt has a joke about making a bad first impression, and while she doesn’t fall into that trap, her opening lines about stalkers are a little underwhelming.
But she quickly develops a nicely odd set, with a cool, downbeat manner and subtly subversive punchlines. You suspect it shouldn’t quite work as brilliantly well as it does, but it’s testament to her easy likeability that she can pull it off.
Rock solid, and just quirky enough to set her out from the crowd, Bratt is another of the contestants almost sure to forge a career in comedy’s cutthroat world – and her third placing will surely add more power to her elbow.
Last, and possibly least, Steph Baker was the most disappointing act of the night. She’s probably no one’s idea of a solicitor (which she is), but everyone’s idea of a lesbian (yep, she’s that too). But her sexuality is about the extent of her act - and frankly it isn’t enough, especially when the material stretches little further than gags about dungarees and kd lang.
There are a couple of week puns in there, and some relationship issues she really needs to get off her chest, all of which contribute to a lacklustre package.
But her set was a rare slump in a night that truly achieved its aim of showcasing the best emerging female stand-ups. And my, are some of them good.
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