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NATY New Act Of The Year 2013 final

Gig review by Steve Bennett

The NATYs – the new act of the year competition previously linked to London’s Hackney Empire – can claim to offer the biggest final of its type.

Biggest in terms of the number of acts crammed on to the bill, that is.

So deep breath as we whiz through the 16 newbies introduced by Arthur Smith at a packed Bloomsbury Theatre. Though ‘new’ is in the eye of the comedian, as a few here have been around a while.

Musical threesome Jonny & The Baptists made for a vibrant and, literally, bouncy opening act, kicking the party off with their spirited and pacy numbers. They are probably never going to win a competition like this, as there are always likely to be acts with better jokes. However, frontman Jonny Donahoe has a witty way with lyrics and Amy Butterworth’s fiddle adds an Irish folksy vibe that sets them apart from the many other acts dependent upon a guitar alone. Completed by guitarist Paddy Gervers, their appearance definitely heralds good times.

Second up, Nabil Abdulrashid has all the ingredients for an intriguing comedian: a young, bright, Muslim with experiences of being brought up as an outsider both in England and in Nigeria and a keeness to explore all these aspects in his set. Yet although he is frequently fascinating, he’s much less often funny – and needs to find a clearer route through his experiences that better draws out the jokes. Perhaps it was the demands of a five-minute set, but he seemed to be packing in too much information, without properly exploring the many comic avenues it opens up.

When Chortle saw Lindsay Sharman at the Piccadilly Comedy Club’s new act final, less than a month ago, she was a plummy English fool very much in Miranda’s mould. Yet here she was a fearsomely earnest Scottish poet, stridently reciting feminist stanzas and sexually objectifying potatoes. Yes, really. It’s testament to her acting talent that both characters were entirely believable – this one occasionally a little too much so as her sourness hardly made her likeable – but it’s solidly amusing, and she’s one of the few character acts who can cut it on a predominantly stand-up bill.

The seemingly straight-laced Mark Niel is genuinely the poet laureate of Milton Keynes, and his comedy style often felt as dated as his jokes about the concrete cows of his home town. Yet he performs well, especially his calling-card verse about being sexually attracted to audiences, but sometimes the punchlines are predictable, and often a little smug. There’s a nice payoff to his set, but he didn’t convince that he could be consistently funny.

You’ve heard of Puppetry Of The Penis... well, Anna Devitt does Puppetry Of The Navel, a party trick where she can make giant lips painted on her midriff appear to talk. It’s a funny, memorable 30 seconds of vaudeville in what’s otherwise a rambling, forgettable stand-up set mocking her ex and talking indelicately and obsessively about constipation.

For a genuinely distinctive set, look no further than Paul F Taylor, who talks about everyday observations but with a wonderful edge of surrealism – most notably in his section comparing TV chefs to his own methods of cooking. Chuck in some strained, yet inspired, wordplay and the occasional vivid description, and you have an act that’s odd without overlooking the punchlines. He was a worthy winner, although the NATY organisers, perhaps wary of the elitism of that word, instead crowned him ‘top of the bill’.

Enthusiastic and lively sketch outfit Four Screws Loose produced a burst of energy with their condensed version of Titanic, using snippets of songs to tell the story... for example, you can probably tell where You’re As Cold As Ice comes in. It’s a rambunctious piece, and all rather jolly, but it’s much broader entertainment than comedy, reliant on the power and familiarity of the music for its impact more than the odd visual joke or display of low-budget ingenuity.

From upbeat enthusiasm to withering distain, courtesy of nihilistic Scot Fern Brady. Though she’s relentlessly miserable in outlook, she does manage to pull laughs out of the bleakness on the strength of attitude alone. Her section on Embarrassing Bodies doesn’t offer much to excite, but otherwise offers a comprehensive take on both the smugness of new mothers and the old news story of urban foxes savaging two London babies. It’s an uneven set, but there are some pretty decent parts to it.

Tony Marrese is more bombast than material, with a semi-coherent but powerfully delivered routine that allowed him to showcase both his comedy Turkish and his streetwise ‘yoot’ accent. In stupid woolly hat, he rattles through the meandering story of living in a rough area, but has too relaxed an attitude to making sure it’s actually funny at every turn – and instead just blasts through, ensuring he doesn’t give the audience a chance to register any possible disapproval.

Vic and Bob have inspired many comedians, but parts of Darren Walsh’s routine so closely mimic them as to be redundant – especially the opening bit where he repeatedly punches an imaginary horse, every blow accompanied by an exaggerated sound effect. There are also a couple of pun-inspired drawings, but again they are not particularly original: Google ‘How does Moses...’ and the search engine will both autocomplete ‘make his tea?’ and offer almost 7million pages offering the answer: ‘Hebrews it’ - one of his sketches here. His closing bit when he uses a loop pedal to create a cacophony of Bruce Forsyths is more distinctive – and distinctly odd – but for an act who appears to want to be ‘out there’, I’d seen a lot of this before. His third place was lucky.

Nicola Wilkinson ploughed an unoriginal furrow, too, with plenty of material about how rough her home town of Hull was, with predictable comments about rock-bottom property prices, teenage pregnancy and crime. Several of my fellow judges were full of praise for how she held the stage with a natural confidence – which is true – but frankly the lower end of the circuit already has far too many hopefuls with presence, but no act, and I fear she fell into the same trap.

Jay Cowle was equally underwhelming – a man who needs to spend more time cultivating his material than his E4-friendly image. Gags are barely discernible amid his tedious observations and uninteresting anecdotes about drinking roo much. He’s got a smartarse comment to a traffic cop that’s quite funny, but hardly the basis for a five-minute set, let alone a career. One word: Pffft.

Sam Savage had bags more potential: an Essex girl who actually champions her home town of Basildon. She’s got a clear persona, of a woman of limited ambition and proud of the fact, and comes across as upbeat and endearing. Her writing is getting increasingly confident, too, and this short routine both eloquently describes a little sub-world, and keeps the jokes coming about it. There are a few missteps, but the routine, and her strength of personality, moves quickly over them. A well-deserved second place was hers on the night.

Some of the impact of Stuart Hossack’s set might have been lost on me – as it’s almost verbatim the same dreamy, Omnichord-backed routine about a perfect world that he first performed at a Chortle Student heat almost two years ago. Nonetheless, it’s a sweet, unique fantasy that contains some unexpected lines as it warns, in its own quaint way, of the dangers of even apparently benign totalitarianism.

Alex Perry must surely have been delivering a workshop set, rather than a real routine, for it seemed like he simply done the most basic comedy-course writing exercise and presented it on stage: take a simple subject or observation and explore it from every angle to the point of exhaustion to see where the funny might be. Consequently, Perry forensically took apart the ‘three-second rule’ for dropped food, but failed to notice this didn’t generate many laughs. And then he had some tired comments about Babestation that equally didn’t warrant sharing. Next!

Next was Quint Fontana, who did so much wrong. His sleazy lounge singer character, in torn tuxedo trousers and untucked silk shirt, has been done so often before; he performed a couple of lazy lyric-swap song parodies; made explicit references to how drunk he was, rather than let it just happen; and cracked cheesy jokes. Yet for all this, it was very funny, thanks to largely to the lack of shame he has in his limited abilities – a shtick, and even a tone of voice – he seemed to have borrowed from Tony Law. Though I didn’t think so when I first saw him a few months ago, Fontana has funny bones. Anyone who can get such effortless laughs from simply doing the ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-da’ bit of a Jive Talking spoof has to.

Posted: 29 Jan 2013

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