Funny Women Gala 2006

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

The annual International Women’s Day gala organised by Funny Women is not like any other comedy gig – a fact blatantly obvious from the fact it’s hosted in the chandeliered majesty of London’s Café Royal rather than anything as insalubrious as a comedy club.


No, this is less a gig and more a celebration. An event as much about pride, congratulation and mutual support under shared ideals as it is about the comedy.


Further proof comes from the diverse make-up of the audience. I suspect it’s not all that often that the Newham Women’s Group goes on a collective jolly to a comedy night, Conversely, even the most confrontational stand-up may prefer the familiar threat of a Jongleurs stag do than face an audience who shout a sanctimonious ‘shame’ at a comedian who confesses to doing no volunteer work, and who visibly bristle when a joke set-up starts ‘I’m not sure about this International Women’s Day…’


These, though, are mere blips. This is one of the most supportive crowds a comic could ever hope to face – the collective will for all the acts to succeed is almost tangible, whether they be rookies such as last year’s Funny Women new act winner Debra-Jane Appelby or experienced old hands like Sandi Toksvig.


The pint-sized Dane, after a triumphant gig at the same event last year, opened the show with a kind of prelude: plenty of dry self-deprecating banter, pub gags to offend every religion, and some gentle satire to get the ball rolling before handing over to the night’s proper compere, Jo Caulfield, as bitingly grumpy, self-obsessed, and misanthropic as ever. Caulfield’s pacy stream of entertaining bitchiness, delivered as if she doesn’t intend to be mean but just can’t help herself, again proved a perfect backbone to the night.


Appelby’s brassy Northern style endears her to almost any crowd, tonight being no exception. In material, she may be reluctant to venture far from stating the obvious – the irony of bird flu erupting in Turkey, or the addictive quality of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, say. But the observations, especially her frustrations with technology and her health and, resonate strongly with the audience. It’s enjoyable, but if only she had a strong writer to take it beyond that...


Ayesha Hazarika helped establish this event, and as such has performed over each of the last three years. And only now is she finding her comedy feet – proof that, for all the good that initiatives like Funny Women do in giving new stand-ups a foothold, the only way to become good is to spend a few years on the rough and tumble of the circuit.


She’s now developed a strong opening and strong closing, sharp lines that are influenced by her half-Indian, half-Glaswegian upbringing – Koran classes in the morning, Scottish country dancing in the afternoon. The set flounders a little in the middle, relying on Hazarika’s sweet-natured friendliness to detract from some truly bad puns and unfocussed routines about Asian parents’ pushiness. But she’s improving year on year.


In a rare live appearance, Dead Ringers star Jan Ravens brought some cabaret glamour next, demonstrating her versatility as an impressionist – mimicking everyone from Sandi Toksvig to Big Brother Chantelle. I can’t profess to knowing all the presenters of lifestyle shows (or, shows which she classifies as ‘a bossy women get you to change stuff’) – but those who can tell their Nicky Hambleton-Joneses from their Kirsty Allsopps seemed impressed enough.


Opening the second half, Shappi Khorsandi, right, effortlessly established herself as the star of the show. Being Iranian, female and a one-time bulimic ensured she scored on all the liberal sensibilities. But the fact she’s playful, sharp and breathlessly fast-paced is what makes her funny – not only does she have fascinating, witty anecdotes, but she liberally punctuates them with smart punchlines.


Shazia Mirza struggled more, and mainly because she never quite manages to come across as a comedy natural, her blunt, staccato delivery seems to be almost wilfully uncomfortable. For a comedian that’s made her name because of her Muslim background, she actually comes across better bitching about such mundane topics as Primark stores. Accepted wisdom is that personal stories such as her encounter with the Queen and Prince Philip, should work best – but the everyday observations seemed a lot more real.


Shouty and aggressive Janey Godley sometimes forgets she’s not in the tough East End pub she used to run in Glasgow, so launches her set with a ferocious, attention-seeking volume that doesn’t really fit the splendour of the surroundings and the politeness of the crowd. But once she settles into more conversational mode, and the audience attune to her rhythms, there’s much to enjoy in her self-parody as a hormonal dragon-woman on the prowl. The image is of someone ‘heroin addicted and skanky’, the reality is a successful woman with a successful book and a daughter in exclusive private school.


All the energy Godley generated was efficiently dissipated by the raffle draw, a necessary piece of business that raised thousands for good causes, but helped the flow of the show as much as points failure at Dagenham.


So it was a tough job for even the resolutely vivacious Mrs Barbara Nice, Stockport housewife and mother of five, to revive proceedings. The mere sound of her singing Robbie Williams was enough to drive chunks of the audience to their Tubes. It was their loss – they missed her trademark Iggy Pop crowd-surfing, a showstopper in anyone’s book.

Steve Bennett
March 2006

Review date: 1 Mar 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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