NW that's what I call comedy

City Life's Manchester final

The reputation of any comedy competition is only as good as the talent it finds.

As such, the City Life Comedian Of The Year contest has an enviable track record - helping catapult the likes of Caroline Aherne, Peter Kay, Dave Gorman and Johnny Vegas into the big time.

Of course, in 12 years, not everyone has gone onto such great things, but the sell-out audience at the Manchester Comedy Store were all hoping to see at least a couple of stars of the future. I have the feeling they won't be disappointed.

In the unenviable position of opening proceedings was Jo Dakin, who assumes the guise of a psychotic stalker bitch, complete with body parts as souvenirs.

It's an interesting character, but it doesn't quite come off. Would someone so unhinged really talk in the measured, deliberate way she does? Would they crack those laboured puns?

She held the room's undivided attention, but aside from a couple of splendid asides, failed to do much with it. More interesting than funny.

Martin Cassidy also failed to raise the stakes much higher. His scope for material was very limited - stretching fom Ready Steady Cook all the way to Can't Cook Won't Cook, with some DIY SOS thrown in for good measure.

It's a dull person whose experience is limited to low-rent TV, and the same applies to comics, even though the topics are, unfortunately, likely to be familiar to our couch-potato society.

In fairness, he does touch upon other subjects - often as the set-up for some basic double entendres - but aside from an inspired look at the Guinness Book Of Records, didn't really make an impact.

The chasm between Cassidy and third act Des Sharples was pronounced, revealing that indescribable 'star quality' that separates the jobbing comedian from the naturals.

Charismatic, confident and effortless, Sharples electrified the room like a human Van der Graaf generator - instantly raising the energy and keeping the momentum going throughout his unfailingly fast and funny set.

The punchlines keep rolling in this lively set that mixed topical, personal and observation styles into a most impressive whole. And he has the most brilliant execution, utterly suckering the audience before unveiling the unexpected pay-off.

Competition-wise, he was going to take some beating.

First up after the break was Bill Woolland, who spent a lot of time geeing up the audience, which was a little unnecessary given the faultless job that compere Justin Moorhouse (pictured), himself a previous winner, was doing.

But we could have done with less banter and more punchlines. In his chatty style he told of his forays into That London, reinforcing a couple of Scouse stereotypes along the way. And some of his punchlines - among them some barely-disguised knob gags - couldn't have been more obvious if they had been heralded with amber flashing lights and a blazing siren.

Dominic Wooodward is trying to do for Oldham what Peter Kay does for Bolton, painting a homesy image of the quirky people from his home town.

He has mixed results. Some of the 'doesn't your mum say the stupidest things' material has an air of familiarity, but other bits, especially about his martial arts fanatic pal, are wonderfully evoked.

Woodward delighfully describes the foibles of his own world with an easy stage manner. With time, let's hope all of his material will match his best.

Phil Walker - son of erstwhile Catchphrase host Roy - kicked off the third third with a slick, high-energy barrage of gags and observations.

While there is little distinctive about his style, except perhaps his appalling shirt, his pacey routine was expertly executed.

Others have done gags about Britain's curling gold medal, or the pitfalls of hosting a Commonwealth Games in Manchester, but few with such assured pizzazz.

Bold, confident, but just a little unimaginative, Walker was always going to finish in the top three.

Next up, the unforgettable and sizeable figure of Greg Cook, resplendent in his cheap vest and shirt.

While his other contestants wheeled out material they had crafted over the preceding months for such a high-profile gig as this, Cook was unafraid to launch into bang-up-to-date topical material, with gags hewn from the previous days' headlines.

His gruff, working-class approach lends his comedy a distinctive voice. And it's telling that he also has a hard-hitting political agenda, in contrast to most of the circuit's dumbed-down material about dope-smoking or TV nostalgia which is almost exclusively performed by educated, middle-class comics.

Cook wraps all this up in an absurd world, where he rubs shoulders with the great and the good, where this outwardly slobbish character might be caught discussing 17th century French poets with Lady Thatcher, or setting John Major up with Edwina Currie.

It's an impressive and ambitious approach, even if a few ideas don't quite come off, and any comic who can coin the phrase 'back-scuttling the baroness' has to have a future.

Closing proceedings was big, black and stunning drag queen Jonathan Mayor, an assured character - but one whose fashion style is a lot more distinctive than his comedy one.

We've heard this glittery, prissy and bitchy gay act so often before, and Mayor brings little to the party, except perhaps a dazzling dress sense (so few comics these days wear eight-inch platforms so elegantly) and certainly not material.

In the end, the judges- including the sponsors, Comedy Store supremo Don Ward and Buzz Club promoter Agraman - plumped for Walker in first, Cook in second and Sharples third.

All quite different, and all very talented, all three stood apart from the rest. Depending on your personal tastes, you may have put them in a different order - I know I would - but greater things surely beckon for them all

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Published: 4 Nov 2002

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Past Shows

Edinburgh Fringe 2012

Phil Walker: Is This It?


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