Child Benefit

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Charity gig programming is often a tricky affair, balancing the need for acts who support the cause against those who will pull the crowds.

Child Benefit seemed, at first, to lump comics together simply because they were adopted - an odd way to compile a line-up, admittedly, but no less random than many others. And no surprise, given that one of the beneficiaries was The British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

The other, a strange bedfellow, was the Soho Theatre young writer’s project. Nonetheless, this twin cause broadened the range of acts to include even those from steady backgrounds.

Host Ida Barr is in many ways a typical Soho Theatre act: a music hall throwback created by Chris Green who is much more at home in a theatrical environment than a comedy club.

Aside from that, ‘she’ was an odd choice of compere. An aging character who prides herself on her lack of energy, she’s hardly an act to raise the roof. Yet this Frankie Howerd in drag is also way too idiosyncratic to be an unobtrusive link between acts.

What we ended up with was the same lines repeated each time. A complaint about her health or the time it takes her to dodder to the centre-stage microphone, followed by a half-hearted cry of ‘Doing the Lambeth Walk’ to elicit an equally reluctant ‘Oi’ in return.

And when she splits the room into sections A, B and C for a singalong the spirits sink, as opposed the desired effect. As it happens, she creates a cunningly catchy trip-hop remix of some old music hall numbers – very Bill Bailey – but it’s the only time her flat mugging really has much effect.

For a gear-change into pure professionalism, Dara O’Briain opened the show proper with a foil-fresh gag about the venue, the Prince of Wales Theatre. ‘It was designed by the Prince of Wales himself,’ he asserted. ‘Which is why there’s assigned seating. So everyone knows their place.’

Top marks for writing a gag specifically for a show in which an abbreviated greatest hits set is the norm, but then O’Briain is becoming an increasingly topical act. Here, he touched on fox hunting and Wayne Rooney, not to mention boldly taking the rise out of hundreds of years of Irish struggle. Like the other acts, he only had ten minutes, but this assured fast-talker sure knows how to pack the gags into that limited time.

Julia Morris also babbles ten to the dozen, pausing only for deliberately phoney laughs at her own mix of naivity and bitchiness. The approach didn’t immediately connect with a wary audience, but she won them over with a sure-fire gem of an anecdote – if quite possibly apocryphal - from the early days of Australian TV.

Mark Steel took the adoption theme as a basis for his argument that it’s nurture, not nature, that determines your personality – opening the doors for a few neat anti-Royal pops. Steel’s an astute topical commentator with a rare gift for bringing his ideas alive, so his set’s never dull. But he’s been out the stand-up game for a little too long, and the polemic constantly ran the risk of overwhelming the jokes. Entertaining stuff, though.

Next up, Catherine Tate presented one of her beautifully observed characters, the petulant, touchy schoolgirl, in a sketch with Richard Wilson. No sooner had she delivered the catchphrase, ‘Am I bothered, though?’, than she was off. A far-too fleeting appearance from a fine talent.

Robert Newman fell into the same trap as Steel, of letting the message overwhelm the comedy, but to a much deeper extent. Posing as some sort of modern-day troubadour, with attention-seeking hat and a banjo under his arm, he waxed lyrical about such topics as global capitalism’s social polarisation or the books of Marxist journalist Eric Hobsbawm. He’s usually such a mesmerising storyteller, but in a ten-minute slot when he cannot dictate the mood it comes across as too pretentious and preachy.

New York cabaret act Kiki and Herb got the second half off to a noisy start by massacring David Bowie’s Space Oddity, screaming and caterwauling through the lyrics and letting the music build to a maniacal climax. Falteringly, they proceeded to do exactly the same to maybe half a dozen more songs, including a Barbra Streisand version of Nirvana, to ever decreasing returns. A welcome outstayed.

Rhona Cameron started by admitting she hadn’t done stand-up for 18 months or more, and, predictably enough, it showed. Aside from a nice line about doing a benefit for adoption ‘the very thing that fucked me up’, it was otherwise a lacklustre list of weak and punchline-free observations. But the recreation of her mum’s answerphone message remains a worthy crowdpleaser, even if this signature routine is starting to show its age.

Ed Byrne showed her how observational comedy is meant to be done – with jokes. Sure, the targets are everyday – smoking, drinking, Americans – but they are expertly hit by a comic continuing his renewed run of fine form.

And for a guaranteed climax, you can’t go far wrong with Omid Djalili. The desperate-to-please Iranian entertainer act may be unchanged over the years, but it still works. And there are plenty of self-referential asides about the easy laugh of a zany Middle Eastern accent or an exaggerated dance to defuse any cynicism.

A strong end to mixed night, as these things inevitably are, with the unmentioned absence of an unwell Stewart Lee more than a slight disappointment. But, like Band Aid, just feel good that you’re backing a worthy cause, or two.

Steve Bennett
November 22, 2004

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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