Tom Allen spent several years with the National Youth Theatre before entering comedy, winning the BBC Talent New Comedy Award in 2005 and So You Think You're Funny in 2006
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Brighton Comedy Festival 2015 gala
The Brighton Comedy Festival opening gala is usually a star-studded affair, as both compere and headliner alluded to. Previously it’s been featured Alan Carr, Michael McIntyre, Adam Hills – all when already famous.
But the absence of big name comics tonight was not to the detriment of quality. The line-up (bar one) came from the stable of agents Off The Kerb – who organise the event in aid of local HIV charity Sussex Beacon – and many of them had a local connection, able to use references to Molescombe and Ditchling to elicit knowing laughs.
Compere was Hove resident Simon Evans, who, frankly, said what we were all thinking when he pointed out he wasn’t in the same A-list as previous hosts. But he got the job done. Archly cynical, he both embraces and mocks the rarefied middle-class life he lives as a parent in a relatively chi-chi enclave, as well as realising he’s as much part of the South Coast retirement belt as he is overspill from Brighton’s hipster community.
He would probably be first to admit crowd work isn’t his forte – though he gamely tried some at the start of the second half. However he delights with dry, withering, tightly-crafted putdowns, which he fires up and down the social ladder as well as at himself.
Opening act Andrew Ryan is far less distinctive, another of the twentysomething comics who’ve led a trivial life, relating pranks he’s pulled and worrying about transitioning to adulthood as his friends leave him behind as they rack up life’s milestones. He’s personable and entertaining enough, with a few more-than decent gags, but there’s little in her persona that suggests these lines couldn’t be placed in the mouths of scores of similar comics.
After the charity speech reminding us why we’re all here came probably the biggest name of the night, Phill Jupitus in the Porky The Poet guise in which he first emerged on the circuit all those years ago. Anyone expecting the jolly bloke off Never Mind The Buzzcocks might have been in for a rude awakening, as there was a bitterness bile and frustration underpinning many of his verses. When he directs that at Jeremy ‘car shagger’ Clarkson, replete with automotive double entendres, it’s an attitude we can all enjoy.. But there was an unexpected edge to material, especially when it came to not knowing his biological father, that probably needs more context and exploration than a ten-minute gala spot could offer. Intriguing, though.
Elliot Steel has the air of authenticity, too. This youngster has stage experience beyond his years which gives his routines a certain rhythm, but he’s torn between going for the gags and the truth, so you’re not quite sure if his pal really is a drug dealer or not. Still the tale of the jobsworth bouncer will resonate with everyone who's ever been barred from a shitty nightclub, and the vista he paints of bouncing around multicultural Croydon, aimless in a typically unexciting town is ripe for further development. At the moment, he’s a solid act more than a fascinating one, but still very much as work in progress.
Tom Allen, in contrast, seems to have been full-formed ever since he emerged on to the comedy scene a decade ago – and he continues to delight now. Even if few of the audience knew who he was before his set – Radio 4 Dickensian spoofs not quite earning him Kardashian levels of fame – his dry, superior camp would have converted many. His routine about his mother struggling to take pictures on her phone sets a high-water mark for the ‘parents are shit with technology’ trope thanks to the distinctive way he drip-fed the pertinent facts, letting the audience create their own mental image. Classy stuff. His manner perfectly captures the middle-class tug-of-war between wanting to be polite and wanting things just so. Thankfully, politeness usually loses.
Opening the second half, Suzi Ruffell proved that she’s becoming impressively accomplished, although she’s largely been under the critical radar of late. She’s only got one telly appearance to her name, she tells us, but with her innate stage presence being increasingly bolstered by quality material. The portrayal of her Portsmouth ‘geezer and bird’ parents is especially engaging, particularly the no-nonsense, heart-of-gold, but sartorially challenged mum. There are some cunning misdirections in her descriptions of domestic life after a long period of singledom, too, in a classy set that will surely help her tally of screen appearances to rise.
Another local next, with much-tipped Phil Jerrod, raging exquisitely about the pressures of being a middle-class bloke desperately trying to keep up with the Joneses, their Instagram-perfect life, and every Guardian-approved social trend. The anger is a bit theatrical, making no secret of the fact that every embittered bon mot has been carefully scripted, but it well serves such precisely insightful, funny writing. With confusion about the present day and disdain for the older generation who had it easy, Jerrod could be the voice of a disillusioned young-middle-aged generation who might have expected life to have been more of a cakewalk than this…
Connoisseurs’ choice James Acaster next, having no need to plug a festival show which long sold out, even before the programme had gone to print. Still, he won over an army of new fans with his quirky take on celebrity gossip and the joys of being tipsy. What could, in lesser hands, be straightforward observational routines are given a new slant and introduced at a delightfully disorientating angle. Every fibre of his presence suggests he’s Mr Awkward, but in his stories he smugly gets the upper hand – the irony that he might be right, but is still a social loser adding an extra layer of comedy to already hilarious material.
‘Disappointing, isn’t it?’ says Seann Walsh as he’s introduced as the headliner. ‘Some of you are expecting a much bigger name.’ True, but his shtick about reluctantly being dragged out of his wastrel lifestyle by a girlfriend who, to his chagrin, functions in the mornings and invites ‘guests’ round to visit struck a cord, which meant Walsh kept the laughs coming as freely as any arena-filler. That he, too, used to live in Brighton endeared him further to the crowd, but it’s his reluctant energy and wearily accurate reconstructions of minor domestic inconveniences, treating them as if they were Herculean tasks, that really hit the mark.
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