The Laughing Horse competition can boast an absolutely cracking final this year; every act in it would have – or will – make the top three of a contest somewhere. By definition, if they have made to this final, they are eligible, even though the range experience covers from about a year to several.
Imran Yusuf was an elegant and energetic compere, entertainingly self-parodying as a super-smart slick host, referencing the kind of 70s racism that he is decades too young to remember unless he’s bought the DVDs. Likeable, teasing and testing, he moved the show along at a good pace.
First cab off the rank was musical double act Hill & Wheedon, who refreshingly sang original songs, could carry a tune, were polished and inevitably raised the question of why there had to be two of them, as the material didn’t intrinsically need both to deliver it. They made for a strong and attention-grabbing start in the thankless first spot. But though musically adequate, they weren’t innately hilarious.
Next up, Canadian Nick Beaton milked his not being a Yank. He addressed drugs, sex toys, gynocracy, gay marriage, bestiality and Darwinism in his well-managed and pungent seven minutes; it’s obvious there’s a smart comic mind at work here, and he’ll be all the more effective when he sheds the determinedly shocking bits, because his lopsided wit is far more winning.
In the fluke of the random draw, the next act was also Canadian, Bobby Mair. You hope that his stare-eyed and mannered performance is an act, because otherwise he would be certifiable. His not terribly amiable nutter shtick is very engaging and the aggressive and sneery content belies the defensive vulnerability of an emotionally fragile kid. The material twists and turns upon itself – and he came first to lift the £1,000 prize.
Very likeable Darius Davis took a high risk strategy of telling one long story, of scary youths on a bus and the naïve courage of a middle aged, middle class bloke getting involved in a cuss battle with them. The routine has become polished and well acted over time, and the audience tonight bought into him, He needs some more quick fire moments to contrast with this, but he does get stronger all the time.
Harriet Kemsley closed the first section with her ditsy and sweet natured tales of rape and sexual assault. She’s previously done well in competition, but this was a night when more forcefulness in her character or material that is not approaching its expiry date would have carried her further.
The next act was a room splitter. Going all out for impact, Tallah Khorsravian threw everything at her set, strongmen, a dwarf, back projection, walk on music, a radio mic and a handbag full of Ferrero Rocher to fling into the audience. Energetic, shrill and disinhibited, of course she got a reaction – but it wasn’t comedy. A fraction of the effort and energy expended here spent on writing material would have been welcome, but instead we got some reality TV monster from in the ‘fame at any price’ category. The audience laughed, as you would when someone is rampaging about screaming and bawling. Just no.
If there’s any justice in the world, Matt Rees, my personal favourite, is going to be huge. He’s got the presence, authority and deceptively simple writing style of a Welsh Kevin Bridges, yes, comparisons are lazy but this could not pass without comment. He was the one you wanted to watch for 20 minutes. He’s young, but there’s a mature solidity to him, he simply owned the stage without any fireworks, just very funny lines and a compelling, unforced lugubriousness. Great. He came in second.
Maintaining the high standard of the night, Funbi Omatayo was delightful, relaxed and restrained, with some original material on the Olympics and not the familiar pattern of Nigerian jokes about parents and discipline, with plenty of twists and turns along the way and one of the few who didn’t disregard the time limit, which others just took as a suggestion rather than an instruction. Very promising, would like to see more.
Laura Carruthers had the toughest gig of the night, her aloof and condescending pose was quite challenging, but she punctured her own apparently pompousness with some pleasurably groan-inducing puns. There’s certainly potential there and she avoided the new comedian’s error of going for filth in order to be provocative.
The man who gets better every time I see him is Barry Ferns, if only he’d move past the stuff about his name and who he looks like, the material on travel has got a good spin to it and he is growing in confidence and composure on stage. He’s still more likeable than he is funny, but he’s making strides in the right direction. The material needs to be sharper, but his nice temperament should get him booked as an affable host while he’s puts in the hours to edit and write.
Leo Kearse is a lanky Scot who was paying attention, using a callback to someone else’s line that immediately established his confidence. His material on masturbating, prostitutes and breast-feeding was pretty low rent and charmless, but he had something that held the attention. He needed a more distinctive, personal set to win over the audience
Endearingly awkward and hesitant, Zimbabwean resident in Edinburgh, Wayne Mazazda hit the stage after the last Tube had departed, along with some of the audience. But those there to see him enjoyed his quiet and self-deprecating delivery. One of the least experienced acts on the show, he was also one of the most absorbing and entertaining.
Last but not least Matthew Giffen exploded onto the stage looking and sounding astonishingly like a young, slim Omid Djalili. He sported a camouflage T-shirt and a wild expression, emphasising the contrast with his Home Counties accent and preoccupations. Closing down a long night, his controlled explosion of energy drew the focus to his lines rather than dissipating it all over the stage, to the extent that he made me forget to write because it was all so enjoyable.
He has to guard against being too much like Djalili or his ‘Keith, the funniest bloke in the office’ persona, combining his educated accent and middle class mild outrage about trivia. But he was a lot of fun and gained himself third place. This was a notably strong final without any embarrassing longueurs, a credit to the participants and to Imran Yusuf’s energetic hosting.