Funny Women gala 2005

Note: This review is from 2005

Review by Steve Bennett

Yesterday was an important date in the world calendar. Not only was it Farmer's Day in Canada, Decoration Day in Liberia and, honestly, National Peanut Cluster Day in the States, but it was also International Women’s Day.

The street parties, bunting, carnival atmosphere and spontaneous outbreaks of celebratory hysteria may just have passed you by. But the world of comedy did mark the occasion, thanks to the Funny Women organisation, with a prestigious showcase of female comedy talent in London’s Café de Paris nightclub.

Ideally, of course, there would be no need for such an event, the idea that comic talent is somehow linked to your genital set-up not so much outmoded as just plain wrong. Still, if the world was perfect there probably wouldn’t be much need for comedy, either.

The night was hosted by Jo Caulfield, and you couldn’t ask for a better MC. Her disparaging, exasperated, can’t-be-bothered viewpoint has instant appeal, and she’s adept at setting, and shaping, the audience mood to fit the acts, as she proved time and again.

First up was fellow cynic Lucy Porter, though her scorn is delightfully packaged in a charmingly effervescent manner. There was some tried and tested material here, such as performing to the typical bunch of meat-headed rugby players, but also more generally topical stuff. Porter’s forte tapping into the public mood and vocalising it. Sometimes subtly, or sometimes just by calling Robert Kilroy-Silk "an orange-faced twat" – hardly Oscar Wilde, but you know it’s going to get a reaction.

Ayesha Hazarkia, one of the organisers of the event, was next with a slightly uneven mix of dubious puns and cross-cultural gags about her Indian heritage, with mixed results. Observations about bleak Glaswegian estates she says she lived in, for example, hardly fit with her soft, educated accent, but the delivery is assured and there are a handful of good jokes.

Jokes aren’t what Katherine Jakeways is about. Her creation, Much-Love Elaine, is a measured study of a seriously defective character, a hospital volunteer with an unnatural interest in her terminally-ill patients. It’s quietly appalling, rather than going for the knee-jerk response of your average, male, shock comic who might similar outré ground. By concentrating on subtly establishing this textured, three-dimensional character, Jakeways doesn’t go for laughs, particularly, but instead creates a genuinely absorbing character.

The dry and wry Angie McEvoy, right, starts softly, too, with modest jokes about life among the single teenage mums who apparently rule Watford. Yet the gags are efficiently written and endearingly told, and gradually accumulate into a satisfying whole – especially as she brings a few personal touches about her own motherhood (with her husband, and at a suitably maternal age, it has to be said) into the equation.

Part two was opened by Mrs Barbara Nice, which was something of a scheduling error, as she’s nigh on impossible to follow – even in what is, for her, a very short set. This malapropism-spouting Stockport housewife is a force of nature, energetically cajoling the audience to take part in her hare-brained stunts – this time, her favourite trick of stage-diving to an Iggy Pop track – and injecting an unbeatable air of fun excitement into the room.

After these high spirits, Jo Caulfield had her work cut out in establishing order before welcoming traditional stand-up Zoe Lyons, but she did. Lyons calls herself "the Cherie Blair of stand-up" , thanks to a similar pillar-box mouth. But her accent, and style, is more Marty Caine - if Marty Caine had been a tattooed lesbian from Brighton, that is. The observational jokes are fairly formulaic, but with Lyons it’s the undeniable force of personality that carries them through.

The Congress Of Oddities brought a surreal interlude next. As two ‘stars of the greatest freakshow the British Empire ever saw", they parody the now incomprehensible world of the music hall, before tackling modern stand-up with a surreal, deconstructionalist brilliance. While such set pieces are wonderful, the act is inconsistent and badly-paced – with far too much time dedicated to a laugh-sparse set-up. But the originality and sheer bizarreness of their act has to be applauded.

Closing the second third, the usually fine Sarah Kendall weirdly chose to press the self-destruct button, derailing her own act by becoming overly concerned with an overheard comment from the balcony and then the red light warning her time was nearly up. There was some of her usual bright and original material struggling to get out, but Kendall never really hit her stride, seeming atypically unconfident in her own abilities.

Not a problem that affects Shazia Mirza, who takes an uncompromising ‘sod you’ attitude to the audience, her detractors and the world in general. On stage, she’s a bit of an odd fish. The material’s a mix of straightforward gags, many about the burka, with some untargeted, not-especially-funny insults for particular anonymous people who sent her disparaging emails. Newer stuff about her mother learning English from daytime TV is more identifiable as a stand-up routine, and stronger for it.

She could learn a thing or two about telling stories from Sandi Toksvig, left, – but then most comcis could. Making a return to stand-up after an unbelievable ten years, she was instantly in her element – a natural wit regaling self-effacing anecdotes with the skill of a seasoned after-dinner speaker. Though stories of, say, a plush award-ceremony lunch, may be outside the experience of most people, she tells them with such modest everywoman charm that cannot fail to be endearing. She’s been away too long.

Closing the night was the baffling cult figure of air hostess Pam Ann; offering little more than bad make-up, a vintage costume and a slightly snooty attitude. Why this is even supposed to be funny is a mystery, but by this time we’d already had more than enough laughs for one night. And International Women’s Day was nearly over. As Caulfield sardonically said, "the other 364 days, they’re for the men".

Review date: 1 Jan 2005
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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