Malcolm Hardee Charity Cabaret 2007

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

Every comic of any standing deserves their own memorial gig, a tribute to the joy they brought. But such was the affection the comedy world had for Malcolm Hardee that you could barely move for tributes following his death in the Thames: from his unique funeral to events at Glastonbury, Edinburgh, the Hackney Empire and his own Up The Creek club, as comics queued to pay their respects to this shambolic, dodgy, yet charming character. And they all had a tale to tell about him, too.

Two years on and the move is not so much in remembering a legend, but in ensuring his legacy continues, by encouraging acts who embody his spirit. And as anyone who went to any of his shows will know, that ethos can be summed up in Malcolm’s usual introduction: ‘Might be good. Might be shit. Who knows? Fuck it.’

With those very words, Malcolm’s son Frank kicked off the second Hackney Empire show, this time raising money to send a Hardeesque act to the Edinburgh Fringe, rather than, as in 2006, trying to settle some of Malcolm’s many, many posthumous debts.

And what an eclectic collection was on display, with strangeness evident from the moment the first compere took to the stage: intimidating celebrity gangster Dave Courtney – a novelty booking, if not exactly the most natural of hosts. Just nobody tell him I said that.

First act – energetic can-can dancers and a maudlin saxophonist notwithstanding – was Phil Kay, who struck an oddly introspective note as he pondered death and memories. But once, following in the great man we were remembering, he dropped his trousers, things took off, as an unprompted audience whistle inspired a jolly improvised song and the madness began.

Phil Cool reminded us that Hardee followed in a long line of variety acts, even if he did cause a new fork in that lineage, with his old-fashioned impressions of Rolf Harris and the like. Visually, he is a joy, able to truly look like those he mimics – if only had a decent writer to give him material to match, rather than the sub-Dead Ringers script he is reduced to.

Despite his low-key style, Norman Lovett regularly survived the baying mobs of Hardee’s notorious Tunnel Palladium, proving they were not impossible to please. He charmed again tonight, even if his material is so lightly whimsical it could be carried off in the wind. But there’s a warmth and childish fascination to his naïve person that proves irresistible as he absent-mindedly plays with plastic bags or bubble-wrap.

Last up in part one, one of the more talked-about novelty acts from last year’s Fringe – doktor cocacolamacdonald; a man who takes to the stage half-naked, with Kiss-style painted face and primitive Casio keyboards. He’s just the sort of act Malcolm would have booked, given his democratic, if undiscerning, policy – although his audiences may well have been less tolerant of an amateurish act who plays badly and shouts repetitive slogans. You can see germs of ideas in some of it, but the bad doktor is making just the sort of indulgent, self-consciously zany, embarrassment of himself you can see on a thousand video clips dysfunctional teenagers have shot in their bedrooms and posted on YouTube. Why see it on stage is a mystery,

Part two was in the more experienced compere’s hands of Ivor Dembina, running out his finest tried-and-tested lines between the most curious selection of acts, starting with one-time Tunnel fixture, The Ice Man. He brings out a block of ice, and does little with it, except deliver a patter packed with a ridiculous number of lame ‘ice’ puns. The audacity with which he brutally shoehorns the word into everything – such is his ‘obs-ice-sion’ with the frozen stuff - is as funny as it is painful for a few minutes, but he long outstayed his welcome. ‘I don’t think I’m going to do this act again,’ he announced at the end.

After Malcolm’s sister Claire got them swaying in the aisles with a ballsy, and completely off-key, version of Cabaret, the ghost of Dad’s Army character Private Fraser was introduced. In reality, it was actor Ian Watt performing an extract from his 2002 Fringe show about the sitcom actor John Laurie, but this piece of drama sat badly in the lin-up, and the heckles eventually came with the plaintive cries of ‘Malcolm’ willing the late MC back on stage to save the show.

Frightfully, frightfully middle-class newcomer Helen Keen also attracted hollers of ‘hurry up’ from the back of the stalls - and with some justification as her set-ups are unnecessarily long and meandering. Luckily her punchlines on such esoteric topics as Elizabeth I are funny and distinctive, and she can deliver a sharp one-liner when needed. That was enough to keep the rest of the audience onside and ride roughshod over the minority dissenters spoiling for a fight. On balance, a victory for the new girl.

To the other end of the experience scale next, and Jo Brand with her obligatory gags about men and her weight. But as she kicked back into more personal moans about the tedium of middle-aged drudgery – from bad sex to bad parenting – she brought the room alive. In recent years, she’s seemed to tread water, but this showed Brand with a renewed lease of comedy life – if that’s not too energetic a phrase for someone who prides herself on her laziness.

This section was concluded with Hardee’s long-term collaborator Martin Soan spoofing Riverdance. When he came on with a potato, you might be expected to fear the marginally racist worst, but in fact this proved to be a hilarious visual treat as the stage became overrun with two dozen mechanical dolls, vibrating away. Very silly. Very good.

Starting part three, Nick Wilty introduced buoyant Scottish comic Bill Bruce who began strongly with gag-laden material about older women, but started to lose the audience with more meandering anecdotes about his recent tour of the remote Western Isles. Good bar-room yarns, for sure, just not gag-laden enough for a stand-up set.

Character act Professor ‘Screaming’ Stephen Hawking was as bad taste as you fear. A man is wheeled on, pretending to be paralysed, delivering corny old jokes about space. A couple were actually rather good, to be fair, but my liberal middle-class conscience couldn’t get beyond the fact we were being asked to laugh at a drooling ‘spazzy’ (as he put it), making for uncomfortable viewing.

Masterful Milton Jones stole this section with his peerless puns, rooted as often in keen observations as they are in quirky whimsy, each one an object lesson in brevity, wit and imagination and so cleverly structured so that these disparate one-liners combine to take the audience on a journey into his own, semi-surreal world.

German vaudevillian Otto Kuhlne proved entertaining in his own cheesy way, too. Dressed in electric purple suit and Tyrolean hat, he performed some splendidly old-fashioned variety pieces, such as the poor-quality conjuring trick of the vanishing ping-pong balls that left him as slack-cheeked as Droopy Dog. His already joyful act is further enlivened by the fact he seems forever on the verge of cracking up at his own stupidity. Tommy Cooper would be proud.

Richard Herring suffered a blow of scheduling, his opening one-liners, though solid enough, faring badly in immediate comparison to Jones’s. Still, he stuck to his guns and his dry pedantry gradually wore down audience resistance, though it was a tough fight which he only, ultimately, won by going for the gross-out lines.

Renaissance man Simon Munnery has long straddled the genres of piercing intellectual comedy and fine character work, more recently turning to more conversational stand-up, and succeeding at that, too. It was this style that took over tonight as he chatted about his recent fatherhood, among other things, with a routine rich in description and Mensa-smart gags – plus a smattering of pithy epitaphs, harmonica playing and poetry, contributing to the winning combination.

Soan returned for the finale, the inevitable Greatest Show On Legs naked balloon dance he used to perform with Hardee. But this time, he started it alone, tragically, before mumbling semi-incomprehensibly into the microphone. All rather sad and awkward, until rescued by more nude men, and the return of the vibrant can-can girls to wind up the show.

Perhaps this was the signal that it’s the time to stop trying vainly to recreate Malcolm’s finest moments and move on with new acts in his spirit. They may be good, they may be shit. Who knows? Fuck it. Oy oy!

Reviewed by:Steve Bennett
Hackney Empire, January 28, 2007

Review date: 28 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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