Naty 2012 final

Review by Steve Bennett

Formerly held at the Hackney Empire, the Natys [New Act of The Year] have a reputation for providing the most eclectic final… and the most patience-sappingly long one. Well this year, they provided the same variety as expected, but managed to bring the gig in within a manageable three hours, including interval, even with 14 acts on the expansive bill.

Opening act the Underdogs suggested we might be in for a long night, however, with a flaccid, dated double act right out of drama school. In their Silky shell suits this duo performed a hammed-up scene from Macbeth, with awkward delivery, bungled cues and mix-ups such as using spoons because they couldn’t find any daggers. What was meant as a spoof on bad theatre turned out to be the perfect execution of bad comedy, with smug sensibilities, hurried delivery and actorly distance between audience and performer.

Thankfully Mark Simmons raised the bar, with an extensive collection of oblique one-liners. They are the sort of delayed-action punchlines that require a few moments for the penny to drop, but he has mastered the difficult timing. His twisted sensibilities are appealing, and although the wordplay is often forced, his awkwardness is matched with similar measures of charm – leading to a hit rate better than most in his genre, at least over the five minutes granted here.

Winsome Canadian Mae Martin is not without appeal, but this mild-mannered musical act struggled to find the oomph to hit home. From the obligatory opening line about looking like a famous person (Justin Beiber), to people’s supposed inquisitiveness when they learn she’s a lesbian and on to changing the lyrics to a popular, if rather outdated, song to make it about her obsession with a celebrity, she was on far too familiar ground, Quirky touches put some flourish on the formulaic, but it is formulaic nonetheless.

George Rowe is one of an ever-increasing number of comedy hopefuls who are able to speak to a room confidently, despite having few jokes and a story that’s not especially interesting. This one involved a bit of a tribal conflict in a pub after a football match, which he failed to make resonate. It’s clearly a script, both in its detached delivery and careful writing, which nonetheless ignores any natural humour that may lie in the situation for a series of limp similes such as ‘I was left looking as manly as Louis Spence in a strongman competition’, which were bolted unconvincingly on to the narrative.

For evidence of how to do metaphor, look no further than Patrick Cahill, who makes a freshly-made dog turd a perfect analogy for life, in just one throwaway line. He’s becoming quite the regular in new act finals, and deservedly so, too, as his set is quirky, original and beautifully put together. You just have to hear his unique expansion on the old drinking advice ‘beer and wine is fine’ to know that. He appears shambolic, but there’s a careful attention to detail here, and his line of thought just isn’t the same as anyone else’s. His usual calling card is a strange and funny song about a tumour-ridden dog that is ‘not in any immediate pain’ – but not tonight. Even without this party piece he took away the 2012 Naty title, showing just how promising a newcomer he is.

Quirky also applies to Electro Future Beard Club, although this duo with their shiny polyester suits and tuneless synthesizer backing track, were more in the category of just plain weird. One of them – Dave New World – has a pigeon on his head; the other, Mr Impossible wears a cardboard mask. Their eccentric set tickled a few intensely, but left the rest of the room cold. They don’t fully exploit their oddness, instead getting stuck in a tediously sarcastic song about London (‘there’s not enough people – it’s so undercrowded’) that laboured any comedy.

Quietly camp Scot Stuart Mitchell was a more low-key proposition – to the point of being so subdued he barely made an impact. There are some nice lines, especially the tall stories about how he might have lost the tips of his fingers that would have done Dave Allen proud, but the writing was very uneven, with some properly clunky gags withering on the vine.

The night’s second Canadian, Bobby Mair, also started with a bit of borderline cheesy wordplay – but soon established that he had a much better idea of what he was doing, with some sharp, smart takes on everything from the human detritus in the Brixton branch of McDonald’s to the inherent logical flaws in the X-Men. He overplayed the angle of being the unhinged weirdo liable to rape, kill and kidnap – which sits uneasily with his generally affable disposition – but he’s a solid, sometimes imaginative, act unlucky not to have placed on the night.

The second half promised more of a cabaret vibe, starting with Mister Meredith in his silk dressing gown and Noel Coward demeanour. It’s an old-fashioned style, but his opening song about his forbidden love for a Dalek really hit the mark. This was followed by a more pensive track, What Is A Man, contrasting his sensitive sensibilities with laddish culture, which could have provided the poignant moment in any West End musical. In some ways, that was his downfall, as it was too accurate to be funny – even though a flamboyant flash of showmanship gave it an edge. He’s an impressive variety turn we’re likely to hear more from.

Back to straight stand-up with Mark Stephenson. Though I say ‘straight’, he has a distinctive downbeat style. It seemed hubristic when, after an underwhelming opening, he promised ‘I’m going to get you on board, don’t worry’ – but he turned out to be true to his boastful word. His strength is casting an absurdist eye over big issues, offering unique takes on large-scale politics and the economic situation. Surrealism is such an understandable response to the pickle we’re in, making his peculiar act as timely as it was funny – and earned him a well-deserved second place.

Bronze went to musical double act Adams and Rea, who might be stretching the ‘new act’ definition a bit, having been performing together for almost six years. They were a clear hit with the audience, even if their opening number, about returning a 79-year overdue library book lacked much traction in content or melody. It was the other two songs that surely won it for them: an educational anti-litter rap, heavy with double entendre, and an indie, feelgood chick-rock song based on Silence Of The Lambs. The lyrics aren’t obviously funny, but this pair perform with absolute conviction, slick ability and an engaging glint that really elevates their playful performance, ensuring the laughs flow.

The least said about fifth-rate drag queen Myra Dubois the better. She might have the obligatory brassy attitude, but she gabbles self-indulgently as she tediously implores an uninterested audience to be complicit in her tired ‘bad children’s entertainer’ act, Auntie Myra. But with her awful patter and barely-there jokes, she certainly has the ‘bad entertainer’ act down to a tee. Next!

Next was another virtual veteran, one-liner merchant Tony Cowards, whose website states he’s being going since 2004. Even so, he’s not a particularly natural performer, self-consciously touching his glasses in a Ronnie Corbett-type way after each punchline. The jokes themselves are a very mixed bunch, with real groaners sitting cheek-by-jowl with some much cleverer, wittier examples of the genre. It’s a reasonable routine, but not a stand-out one.

And finally back to drag with the Fabulous Russella, eschewing the normal high-maintenance look for something a little rougher around the edges, in line with her deliberately shambolic act. Essentially, she just makes pancakes on stage while tottering perilously on her vertiginous heels, making a great mess in the process. It’s far from strictly choreographed, but there’s a good dollop of loose, slapstick fun in the chaos. Nigella was never like this sloppy tosser.

Published: 30 Jan 2012

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