Laughing Horse New Act Final 2004

Note: This review is from 2004

Review by Steve Bennett

Another day, another new act final. The evening after the Hackney Empire talent hunt and less than a week after the Chortle Student Comic awards, it's the Laughing Horse venues turn to dish out their accolades.

Gathered in Richmond, Surrey, last night were the best dozen of the 412 entrants – at least as voted for by audiences in clubs across the country - vying to be the fifth holder of the title, following the footsteps of Matt Blaize, Greg Davies and Marek Larwood.
First on the bill– and replacing Ariane Sherine, who was laid low by food poisoning - was Henning Wehn, a German stand-up comic. Yes, the jokes about his national sense of humour are obvious. And yes, he cracked most of them himself.

For Wehn is not one to underestimate the British appetite for a bit of Kraut-bashing. You want to urge him not to mention the war, but he surely does, with routines straight out of 'Allo 'Allo.

He's self-deprecating about it all, but that doesn't excuse the material which, when not from Stan Boardman's back catalogue, stretch little further than 'doctor, doctor' jokes from a bumper book of bar-room humour. Or should that be bierkeller?

His cack-handed attempts at using English colloquialisms, sprinkled with malapropisms, should be funny, but aren't – and the one stereotype he doesn't live up to is efficiency, as what should be simple one-liners get obscured in waffle.
At one point, he viciously turns to the audience, taunting a front-row punter with savage

cruelty, providing an unexpected edge to the set. Perhaps this is the persona he should develop more, as the current act certainly isn't working for him.

Steve Francis doesn't have such problems. He has his voice – and it's a gloriously unpleasant, always inappropriate one. Every one-liner is so astonishingly, shockingly, brazenly sick that you have to admire his sheer courage in touching such raw nerves.

These unapologetically tasteless gags are often blazingly topical, without the distance of time that would soften tragedy into comedy. Yet, he still manages to makes them remarkably funny, thanks in no small part to the courage of his convictions, not to mention his impenetrable aloofness on stage. The hit rate's impressive – but not flawless – and proved enough to secure him the hotly-contested third place on the night.

Simon Feilder looks as if he has taken a leaf out of 2003 winner Marek Larwood's book when it comes to performance with a nervy, excitable, simmering energy that's compelling to watch.

The barely-restrained zaniness bubbles over occasionally, with stupidly pointless gestures and poses struck for the sheer oddness of it all, but mostly it manages to contain the relentless stream of puns and silly hypotheses that form his material into a cohesive whole.

Such larger-than-life presentation does have a slightly gimmicky feel to it, but it's undoubtedly enjoyable stuff.

More low-key was Richard Kilby, whose poor-quality beard and sardonically chatty manner inevitably invite comparisons with a younger, Bristolian version of Daniel Kitson. But there are no prizes for guessing who would come off worse from such a match-up.

Kilby's is a pleasant enough act; he's a witty raconteur who proves engaging company, but the laughs just don't come hard or fast enough. And his wry manner feels just a bit too close to many of his peers to be truly distinctive.

He has at least one brilliantly quotable joke, about a confectionary Jesus, although at the other extreme he heads unnecessarily below the belt for later laughs. Decent enough, but he just didn't have that X-factor to shine on what was fast becoming a strong night.
Russell Kane, main picture, then raised the game ever further – to an unmatchable level, as it would turn out, as he was later crowned the evening's clear winner.

If Feilder's manic display seemed stagey, this, instead, was the real deal: a breathless, raging, feral act whose wild, maniacal performance is genuinely disconcerting. Many comics play up their odd behaviour, but here's one whose mental well-being seems a real cause for concern.

But neurotic twitchiness is no substitute for strong material, and thankfully, Kane's got that, too. A lot of it obviously depends on his scary, unhinged nature, but there's more mainstream stuff, too, most notably on the use and abuse of words. Denis Norden on PCP, a lazy critic might say – but that would do a grave injustice to probably the most exciting comic discovery of the year.

Kane was a hard act to follow, but Frank Honeybone might have struggled in any slot, given the dearth of originality in his material. Much of it concerns the dreariness of Wales, in case we needed reminding, an d it always remains on the safe ground of reality TV and the like.

He doesn't come across as a comedy natural, so stock lines like 'Did I really say that out loud' or the over-optimistic 'You'll be using that tomorrow' seem utterly out of place.

He's not terrible, just that he offers nothing that special. Combined with a dull delivery style, even this short set seemed to drag,

Chris McCausland is blind. Coincidentally, before this show I had tuned in to a fascinating if worthy Radio 4 documentary about disability in comedy; exploring the stereotypes, pondering how disabled acts present themselves and earnestly discussing how stand-up can help challenge society's attitudes to the handicapped.

With all this weight of responsibility on his shoulders, McCausland has the right idea – and simply ignores the issue entirely. Aside from an ice-breaker recognising the irony in a blind man doing observational comedy, he just cracks right on with a sterling set, making virtually no further reference to his sight.

It's straightforward stuff - the ridiculousness of Bond villains, shark attacks and the like - but elegantly written and engagingly performed. It's occasionally sluggish, but McCausland unfailingly demonstrates such a keen comic instinct that it's easy to believe any such gripes are just minor wrinkles on his ceaseless march to comedy success. This lad's certainly got potential – and after this performance, he has a Laughing Horse runner-up credit to his name, too.

After the genuine German stand-up comes the fake – Marc Blake's creation Helmut, a suitably stern creation whose humourless facade is resolutely unrelieved by the comedy braces he wears.

Blake's hardly a newcomer – he was a finalist in the very first Hackney Empire new act competition a decade or so ago – but with Helmut he picks up his stand-up career after a lengthy sabbatical devoted to writing.

His experience shows in the performance, perfectly droll with nicely sinister undercurrents. He has a great turn of Teutonic phrase and there are some wonderfully deadpan one-liners among the selection – although elsewhere he does leave the impression that he's hiding behind the character to get away with some dubious-quality jokes he wouldn't perform as himself.

More stereotypes came from the next act, Matt Price, whose native Cornwall is – wouldn't you know it – full of backwards inbreds. But it soon became obvious that the county of his birth was actually the most interesting thing about this ex-philosophy student, who simply didn't have anything to say to an audience.

'I'm a very angry person,' he assured us at one point. But if he is, he never displayed it, preferring to stick to hoary old lines about hoarier old subjects.

When Duncan Logan started with the appeal: 'Any dyslexics in?' the heart sank even further. Some corny old anagram-based jokes would surely follow, or perhaps the observation that the condition is merely a euphemism for 'thick' among middle-class parents.

But it was so much more than this. Logan genuinely is dyslexic and talked interesting and amusingly about his experiences. Elsewhere, the routine was more uneven: a fat people shagging routine conjured up images at least as bad as you'd imagine, while the props of talking greetings cards received mixed results.

However, the good start was finally squandered completely with his routine about stupid laws from around the world, the source for many a dodgy 'humour' book. Using a Have I Got News For You-style missing words game, he gamely tried to get the audience to care, but it all seemed like such hard work for so little reward.

By this stage in the long evening, we needed a stunning act to revive flagging energies. But Geoff Taylor wasn't it. This self-confessed ageing Milky Bar Kid proved a perfectly solid act, but offered nothing to capture the imagination.
Michael Jackson, Lord Of The Rings, Tony Martin and some shameless wanking gags made it feel cosy and familiar, even if the punchlines were perfectly respectable, And some of the topical material is, fatally, starting to show its age. Amy Gerhing, the teacher who had an affair with one of her pupils, was in the headlines more than two years ago.

Victor Daniels might have misjudged the mood of the refined Richmond crowd with his: 'Single women, make some noise' plea, which was surely designed for a more raucous occasion. He soon recovered, though, for some amusing observations about his upbringing, with various relatives brought to life. Again, decent enough stuff, even though that spark that distinguishes the brilliant from the workaday was missing - or at least flickering only weakly.

But his downfall came by dedicating a good chunk of his brief set to reading from a Noddy book, as if it had been written by a black author. Noddy wakes in the afternoon, has a 'Jamaican breakfast' of one big spliff, gets the munchies and collects his Giro. Not perhaps the most insightful of comedy – but, more crucially, only sporadically funny.

In all, the night threw up more than its fair share of names for the future, a couple who must be destined for greatness and a good many more who'll surely be circuit stalwarts before too long. Perhaps the only complaint is that in my second new act final in six days, seeing a total of 25 comedians, there was again not one woman was among the finalists.

C'est la vie.

Steve Bennett
March 1, 2004

Review date: 1 Mar 2004
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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