NATY 2015 final

Review by Steve Bennett

Going for nigh on 30 years, the NATYs have previously thrown up finalists such as Russell Brand, Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson, Micky Flanagan – and, erm,the Electro Future Beard Club.

Formerly based at the Hackney Empire, the contest prides itself on the variety element of its performers, and 2015 is no exception. But while that means the final often produces wildly inconsistent acts, this year stuck an (almost) consistently solid quality. And that despite producer Roland Muldoon's complaints that the standard of most auditionees was woeful. The cream clearly rose.

For my money, the winner should have been The Herbert, the nerdish alter-ego of Spencer Jones who could single-handedly give prop comedy a good name following a generation of hacks. There's something of the Tommy Cooper about his faux-innocent demeanour and daft sense of humour. He mucks around with 'groan stick' party novelties and a toy doll, and when he dons a hard hat, he brilliantly adopts the persona of a builder – like a cheap Cockney remake of The Mask. Playful and inventive, his peculiar set builds its ideas, belying the fact there's a sharp comic mind behind the weird ingenue on stage with his dorky haircut, tights and ill-fitting jacket.

In the event, he came joint second with Jenny Collier, a deserved silver medallist for the way she exploits her pedantic geek mentality. With perfect RP enunciation, she has a deft way with language, adopting pretentiously incorrect usage and pronunciation, the latter attributed to her time working at an offensively expensive bathroom shop. Her performance could certainly be more animated, but her writing twists and turns in a lovely way.

Both the above were defeated by Daniel Duffy, the alter-ego of Michael Stranney who has perfectly encapsulated fuzzy Irish whimsy in a compelling, nervous stream-of-consciousness that paints a detailed picture of peculiar small-town goings-on. There's a cast of supporting characters any offbeat sitcom would relish, from Padraig, the borderline-autistic shop worker with a photographic memory, to apparently legless cows. The sense of place is powerful, with his quirkily amusing descriptions wittily fleshing out the vivid situation. In some ways it's the archetypal 'dumb Irishman' gag writ large, but done so expertly well – think Ardal O'Hanlon as Father Dougal – that few would take issue with his first place.

Taking the bronze was Francis Foster, who possibly benefited from his position last on the bill lodging him most firmly in the judges' minds. He's got a unique angle, though, being part-Venezualan, part-Wigan, but looking like neither and sounding like a gobby London plasterer. That twin heritage, of course provides most of his ice-breaking jokes, before he segues into amusingly bitter gags about hating his drama-teacher job. Still, his occupation has given him a bold, declamatory style, which makes an impact on the audience. He's a rock-solid act for sure, though others on the bill could claim greater inventiveness in their writing.

Rewind to the start of the final – compered, as is tradition, by Arthur Smith, this year in a succession of novelty headgear. Sean Patrick opened the show with dry one-liners that could sometimes be as sharp as his suit. He jokes knowingly about his lack of stage presence and charisma, but it doesn't entirely make the problem go away. Does the material make up for the deadpan? About half the time, with his best gags demonstrating creative offbeat thinking, but there's a bit of filler here, too.

Josh R Cherry is a bit more chatty and a lot more mainstream, with his discussions of sex and drinking and 72 virgins. He's likeable and witty with the occasional nice line about South London living, but he lacks a killer edge – and competence alone is not enough to stand out among 14 other finalists, and by the end of the night he was forgotten.

Canadian Chris Betts has a confident style and a solid set, much of it mocking advertising slogans. Sometimes there's a glint of steelier edge, such as his opening line referencing parental abuse, but the audience bristled and he backed away. There are some nice touches, too, such as his impersonation of Chinese people in a restaurant which deftly sidesteps any possible racism while exploiting the comic value of repetition to the full.

Dapper Joe Sutherland's aloof, supercilious presence commands the room. Like Kenneth Williams without the histrionics – if you can imagine such a thing – he drips with distain for humanity and its failure to live up to the gold standards of elegance and refinement he, himself, embodies. In a barbed, sardonic set, he explains the travesty that his perfection does not come automatically endowed with wealth – but that's what rich suitors are for. It's a compellingly arch persona that will make an impact wherever he performs.

Cheekykita provided the weirdest element of the night, taking to the stage in a white jumpsuit and tin hat, looking like something out of an avant-garde 1980s pop video – an impression immediately reinforced as she started singing Walking On The Moon badly, accompanied by banging herself on the head with a stick… a tribute, perhaps, to Bob Blackman's old Mule Train variety act. For the rest of her allocated five minutes, she delivered an oddball 'lecture' about space that Professor Brian Cox probably wouldn't recognise, fumbling a model globe and dressing as a black hole. It's all a bit 'weird-for-weird's sake', but an amusing break from the run of stand-ups – and in her clowning, Cheekykita certainly harnesses the ridiculous.

Mikey Bharj was more traditional in his set, to the point of being tired with his hackneyed impressions. Yes, Christopher Walken and Arnold Schwarzenegger get yet another run-out; though he's a little more up to date with Liam Neeson's speech from Taken. He might have gotten away with it if the gags were funny, but the recreation of a pick-up techniques in a club was limp, too. Not a promising set by any means.

Sketch quintet The Jest also misfired. Sketch is always hard to integrate into a stand-up night unless the performers are larger-than-life, but this group were far more on the actorly end of the scale, and their scenes failed to connect. They are beautifully executed and achieve an eerie tone, but not so much laughs – especially as they can't achieve the shock ending they needed for the their ghost hunter skit in a theatre of this size.

The NATYs has a fairly loose definition of what counts as a new act, and I recall seeing Rachel Fairburn in the City Life final in her home town of Manchester back in 2008, when City Life was still a thing. She has an engaging, chatty style, full of winsome charm and as confident as you'd expect from such an old hand - but the focus on her 'intimdating' accent wasn't too inventive, especially as she contrasted it with the Geordie lilt, which she wasn't particularly strong on recreating. Her breathless energy is a winner, but the material not outstanding.

Ashley Haden is an interesting act, overtly political and full of righteous anger – but also the feeling that he's posturing, not to mention failing to inject enough jokes into the polemic. Starting with Boko Haram, hardly the gentlest of topics to open with, he raged against the distinction of one man's terrorist being another man's 'insurgent' suggesting a racist agenda. There's is some jet-black humour as he addresses such valid points as the smug laziness of 'clicktivism' but it's a set where you applaud his sentiment and artistic bravery, rather than laugh out loud.

Don Biswas also offered a political slant on the likes of zero-hours contract, but in a less confrontational set that also covered his own dyspraxia and social limitations. Some of his writing is rather woolly – and he, too, will take time off from laughs to make a point – but there are fair few strong punchlines here too.

Nick Elleray is a classy act, turning the loud Aussie stereotype on its head with an aridly dry set delivered in quiet, measured style. Material-wise he's high on self-deprecation and even higher on calling out the corporate bullshit he has to endure in an office job. There's a touch of the Louis CK in his material about dating at 45, very much aware of the limitations of his body.

In all, this was probably the strongest NATYs final in years, suggesting the immediate future of comedy should be interesting.

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Published: 26 Jan 2015

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