Pimm's Summerfest

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

DAY FIVE

An outdoor comedy festival with Pimm’s on tap, meat on the barbecue and giant deckchairs to lounge around in – Summerfest was clearly designed for balmy summer nights the British climate just can’t be relied on to provide. True enough, last night, the tempest descended.

At least the marquee was robust enough to withstand the thunderstorm’s lashing winds and torrential downpour, but the weather was bound to dampen spirits. Rich Hall joked that it was akin to being in the path of Hurricane Gustav; Rhona Cameron, struggling to be heard over the sound of rain on canvas, said she felt like she’d been drafted in to entertain the survivors of a natural disaster.

The ad lib was, however, one of the few genuinely funny things she said, in a rambling, directionless set. Cameron seems to have lost her way of late, ad this flabby performance did nothing to instill confidence that she will find it again. ‘Yep, errm, right. I’ve just, erm, come back from Edinburgh,’ she begins, seemingly racked with nervous hesitancy about approaching her own material.

She might have good reason, as it’s a flimsy, pedestrian set, with tired subjects covered blandly. The trials of traveling by EasyJet or her mother’s ineptitude with technology are described accurately, but with such minimal comic embellishment she might as well be filing a straightforward report. And haven’t we got over the novelty of predictive text not knowing the swear words yet?

‘Why do you never see any lesbian air hostesses?’ she ponders, to which the obvious answer is ‘How can you tell?’ But she needs the stereotype of butch bull dykes to make her broad-brush comments work.

But her main failing is that she’s too long-winded. She mentions the film United 93, gives a summary of its plot, a few production notes about how it was cast, a little review of how mesmerised she was by it, then repeats a lot of the dialogue – and still no joke. Then she places herself in the situation for a weak exchange about her sexuality, and an easy callback to the butch hostesses. That was a lot of setup for not much payoff.

Sometimes she gets laughs just from being dismissive: ‘Ugg Boots. Why?’ It’s the sort of moody attitude that might pass for wit on a 100 Greatest Fashion Disasters type TV show, but there should surely be more to stand-up than this.

She does have a nicely grumpy attitude, and an appealing naturalness to her delivery, and when there is a gag to back it up, it works well. But that’s too infrequent an occurrence.

It’s a stark contrast with compere Shappi Khorsandi, who is always open and chatty, but never lets her concentrating slip from where the next punchline is coming from. There are a few easy laughs as this well-spoken middle-class girl lapses into the patois of youth as she mocks their music and their dress sense, but these are mere icebreakers.

Much of her material is a take on multicultural Britain, and the liberal minefield of negotiating it, delivered with a lightness of touch that skilfully dodges the twin perils of being overly PC and just mocking the funny foreigners. A lot of the rest of her inspiration is global politics, especially concerning her native Iran, that again is observational and silly, rather than agenda-led.

With rock-solid material and a friendly, bubbly presence, she proved an accomplished host.

‘Friendly’ is not the word you might immediately call to mind when it comes to aggressively sweary Aussie Brendon Burns; here in his element ripping into the posh denizens of la-di-da Holland Park.

He admitted to feeling a little queasy, and began by regaling us with details of how he vomited just hours earlier, an after-effect of a self-administered nicotine overdose caused by not properly reading the instructions on his anti-smoking patches. Like Cameron’s set, this raw material is still more reportage than comedy gold, but it had a freshness and at least some indicators as to where future jokes might lie if this ever does become a real routine.

At this point the audience weren’t quite sure what to make of him; or he, us. But as he settled into his routine, and Dr Spotlight quelled his uneasy stomach, Burns relaxed into more established material about Grand Theft Auto, his drugs-hell past and an entertainingly brutal description of a night out in Cardiff.

Such uncompromising exaggerations are his trump card, repeated again in his diatribe against evil foxes and even poor old ginger Prince Harry, a well-worn subject but still one Burns mines effectively – especially when he erupts into unbridled unpleasantness against the sainted Princess Di.

He’s at his very best when there’s a teasing point behind his raging, and here he was playful firstly about racism, secondly about class. As much as he abuses this posh audiences, the more they lap it up, a throwback, he suggests, to prep-school masochism.

The next act should’ve been Mark Steel, but he got held up at Heathrow, so into the breach stepped Rich Hall – and you couldn’t have hoped for a better substitute.

Riffing about the situation, Hall mixes an engaging spontaneity with desert-dry jokes about his homeland and its retarded leader. But he doesn’t just offer Bush-bashing; he’s got fine gags about John McCain and his newly-appointed running mate Sarah Palin, too. In fact, his jibes about the Republican candidate’s decrepitude are so vicious, memorable and hilarious that the Obama campaign could co-opt them for a hugely effective attack ad.

There’s a bit more barked-out banter, and theories as to why Al Qaeda might be like KFC, before he disappears to change into the garb of jailbird country singer Otis Lee Crenshaw, the act he had actually been booked to perform.

In the transitional years of British comedy, folk singers such as Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott used to banter between their songs until gradually the talking overtook the music. But with Crenshaw, Hall is going the other way.

This set is now more about the music, atmospherically languorous, whisky-soaked country tracks evoking the badlands of Tennessee. Their premises might be witty, but there’s rarely more than a couple of jokes in them, for risk of spoiling the delightful music, delivered with the aid of two backing musicians.

There are more laughs in the betwixt-song banter, with potshots at commercialised country or the redneck mentality, or wry jokes about the realities of poverty. There’s not quite enough of this for my comedy sensibilities, as Otis inches ever closer to being a serious musician and away from the laughs.

The only concerted attempt against this, an improvised song about an insurance company ‘catastrophe modelling analyst’ in the audience went awry – but then this ambitious stunt normally does, Crenshaw’s struggling and apologies becoming the joke itself.

Crenshaw proved a tuneful, if only fitfully funny, climax to the Summerfest week. Since most nights were sold out, or very nearly so, let’s hope for more of the same next summer. Weather permitting.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett


DAY FOUR

Not reviewed

DAY THREE

It’s oldies' day in Holland Park today, with three cantankerous over-40s bemoaning the state of young people today, not to mention their own declining health and tolerances.

Even token twentysomething Jon Richardson is a grumpy young man, liking things ‘just so’, and becoming irascible when they’re not. People who jumble up his carefully arranged DVD collection, for instance, make him uppity, a consequence of his apparent obsessive-compulsive disorder.

He’s as stubborn and petty as a young Victor Meldrew, keen to wind up those who irritate him. Disliking fast-lane drivers tailgating him, for instance, means that he will provoke them further, doggedly refusing them the space to overtake, smug in the knowledge that he’s in the right.

Not all this self-centred set is hilarious, with some meandering routines that don’t pay off, but Richardson’s grouchy grievances always make for a good listen, effortlessly delivered despite the nasal twang he admits makes for a ridiculous tone of voice.

He has some refreshingly out-of-kilter opinions, too, such as feeling that, politically, Britain isn’t in the dire state we’re always told it is and that Gordon Brown might be all right. You mightn’t agree, but at least it’s a different point of view in the largely homogenous stand-up landscape – and it shows his set is more than low-level misanthropy aimed at all the idiots in the world.

Richardson was followed by Jenny Éclair, 48 and falling to pieces’. She’s disarmingly frank about the physical effects of aging, aggressively bitter about the way her menopausal body is letting her down.

Her set is based more around her corrosive attitude than hard-and-fast jokes, with observations spat out with a mix of despair and venom. There’s no naturalness to her forceful delivery, as she stomps her way around the stage, overacting dreadfully and proclaiming with all the subtlety of a pantomime dame – a style that proves as tiresome as it is fake.

Irritating performance aside, there are some nice ideas here, with witty jokes about her uselessness with cars, a new take on old Jeremy Kyle, and a good suggestion at how the middle-aged could get their revenge on the hoodies. But you have to see past the theatrical showings-off to get to it.

Sean Hughes, in contrast, is relaxed and laid-back in his middle-aged crabbiness, with an enjoyably sardonic take on both events in the news and his own, slightly disappointing life. Hugely opinionated, he bemoans overpriced organic food, dismisses the Irish failures at the Olympics, and ponders why Catholics are so hung up on the Crucifixion.

It’s funny, intelligent stuff, neatly constructed and engagingly told. After 20 years in the business, he has the level of celebrity, he says, when people don’t know if he’s famous or simply a bloke from a few doors down, but his sense of humour is still keen.

There are a couple of topics he mentions that have been overdone – the airport check-in question about packing your own bags, or the middle-classes using dyslexia as a euphemism for ‘thick’ – but generally his thoughtful, wide-ranging set hits the mark with satisfying regularity.

Jeremy Hardy’s peevishness comes not only from a sense of his own middle-age, but also from an irritation that after 23 years preaching his left-wing message, the revolution still hasn’t happened. We’ve still got a monarchy, politicians are still self-serving fools afraid to have an opinion, and people still buy newspapers spreading ignorance and intolerance in their droves.

Hangdog Hardy’s tetchy set has always had an air of despairing futility, which certainly improves with age. The risk is that he slides into polemic, rather than comedy, as he gets on a particular hobbyhorse – and it’s a trap he couldn’t avoid tonight.

His routine started strong, with a barrage of fervent material deriding youngsters and the Tory Party past and present, all with good reason and better jokes. He stumbles over a few gags, backing up his endearingly confused demeanour. ‘Imagine how good this material would be in the right hands,’ he self-deprecatingly acknowledges.

But once he’s built up our trust that he’s funny, Hardy slips gradually into lecture mode, bemoaning terrorism, politics and the sizeable catalogue of things that gets his goat. The laughs subside into smatterings of applause – a sign that the audience agree with him, or find that he’s made a point particularly pithily, rather than the reflex of laughter that something’s hilarious.

Still, despite his flaws, Hardy’s becoming a national treasure, a sort of pet, avuncular Leftie to follow in the pipe-smoke of Tony Benn.

The night was compered by Rufus Hound in very low-key manner; for the most part chatting quietly and kindly to the audience, happy to say: ‘Ignore this shit, wait for the acts’ when it comes to the night’s comedy.

Despite from his underplayed confidence, he can silence a drunk loudmouth, admitting ‘I’m not very good at jokes, but I am a streetfighter’ – even thought he didn’t need all his metaphorical brawling skills for a mostly well-behaved audience like this.

He has very little material to pick up on, save a recounting of what gynaecological nurses once told him were the top three things they’ve removed from vaginas – a routine which certainly didn’t pan out how you might expect. That aside, he was a virtually invisible presence; which you might argue is the very sign of skilful compering.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett


DAY TWO

Day two of the Pimm’s Summerfest is the least stand-uppy of the week; with a character poet, a musical act and Puppetry of the Penis performing alongside solitary stand-up Russell Howard.

Affectionately compered by Lucy Porter, with typical effervescent charm, the show began with an apology that much-anticipated Kevin Eldon was unable to make the gig, so his place would instead be taken by performance poet Paul Hamilton.

To no one’s surprise, Hamilton turned out to be Eldon in a jacket and serious face, exquisitely pretentious and completely unaware of his own irrelevance. In sombre tones, he opined in rhyme on such great issues as Chinese human rights, terrorism and the legacy of George W Bush with all the insight of a badly-read 13-year-old.

Even if poor-quality poetry is an easy target, there are some very witty lines in here. But funnier than the verses themselves are the moments such as his attempt at improv, when Hamilton inadvertently exposes his own inadequacies, yet remains blissfully unknowing. Eldon’s perfect timing and air of pomposity add to the rounded character.

The audience took some time to warm to him, with both the aloof persona and the very fact it is poetry giving an air of distance to the set, a feeling not helped by the fact he was on first. But he was appreciated in the end.

No such hesitancy about Howard, who forcefully grabbed the laughs from the get-go and never once released them from his grip. He says he gets ‘giddy’ on stage, and that’s evident in the excitable way he dashes from topic to topic and the genuine glee he exudes as he does so.

There is something child-like about the way he holds the world in wonder, finding joy in the smallest things. He spends his life pursuing those silly moments, whether it be in the arms of a lover or by witnessing the proud actions of a pensioner, then revels in spreading that positive mojo when he retells the tales.

That childishness extends to his language, too, as he drops immature phrases into his set, adding to his natural appeal. He may be a whirlwind of goodwill, but the impressive performance doesn’t mean he hasn’t a keen skill for writing as well, with every incident described with smart, funny observations and quirky turn of phrase.

Just because he’s performing with cheek and likeability doesn’t dampen the sharpness of his points, such as attack on the bigoted miseries wallowing in their fearful ‘what next..?’ view of Britain. It’s like being coshed with a piece of marshmallow-coated two-by-four. But if anyone doesn’t share Howard’s infectious joie de vivre, they thoroughly deserve to be mercilessly mocked.

Stephen Lynch opened part two, a respected musical comic in the States but virtually unheard-of over here – or so I thought. He clearly had scores of fans in the Holland Park marquee, cheering song titles and joining in with the words just like any rock-and-roll groupie. Perhaps they have just seen his ample output on the Internet

His music is exceptional; fully-fledged tracks rather than half-baked ways of getting jokes across with a guitar. His shtick is that the politically incorrect lyrics are utterly at odds with the pleasing melodies.

Sometimes he labours the point, with one joke pulled out across the three-minute duration of the song, but generally he gets it right, adding jokes and twists and the verses unfold, building the set skilfully. His best-known song is about Craig, Jesus’s party-loving brother, but funnier are Beelz, about a camp Satan, Special Ed, about his retarded friend, and My Girlfriend Is A Nazi, which is self-explanatory.

His between-song banter can seem a little aimless, but for the last segment he’s joined on stage by a sidekick called Rod, which brings a spontaneity and freshness to the set as they tease and goad each other during the dating-peril song Big Fat Friend.

Closing the night were one of the Puppetry of the Penis franchises; a premise that’s surely well-known by now – two men manipulate their dangly bits into a series of installations, or ‘dick tricks’, seen up close or projected on to the big screen. Once an ironic bit of fringe theatre silliness, the show is now a hen-party staple, with drunken all-women audience shrieking in delight.

But in this plush gig, it didn’t really work. The ‘puppeteers’ Martin and Andy seemed flat with their chatter, and the generally polite audience generally tired of the repetitious nature of the routine. Once you’ve seen a scrotal sac stretched in one direction, you’ve seen it stretched in all of them.

People started to drift out as the boys went through their repertoire: water-skier, Eiffel Tower, George W Bush, the Loch Ness Monster. They had more walkouts than Doug Stanhope, by a long chalk (and no, that’s not a double entendre, though you start to think that way after a few minutes of this act).

It seems there is more to entertainment than sticking your knob through a beermat and calling it a lizard, after all…

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

DAY ONE

A world away from both the mud-splattered canvases of outdoor festival comedy tents and the cramped sweatboxes of the Edinburgh Fringe, the new Summerfest in London’s Holland Park is a bid to drive stand-up upmarket. In a plush, covered auditorium primarily designed for opera-goers, with comfy seats offering more legroom than first-class, this event is clearly designed to be the Glyndebourne of gags.

It seems to be attracting the clientele to match, too, drawn from the neighbouring chichi neighbourhoods of Kensington and Notting Hill – which meant compere Russell Kane was in his element. This vibrant Essex lad has a working-class chip on his shoulder the size of Southend pier and enjoys nothing more than laying into the pretentiousness of the moneyed.

The caricatures he paints are broad, adopting a haughty tone as he imagines posh folk with names like Jocasta shopping for hummus and balsamic vinegar. There’s an appealing energy to his exaggerated performance, but there’s little meat to the material – as further demonstrated in the second half when his banter with Kiwis in the audience begins with making a ‘baaing’ sheep noise and talking about hobbits.

And talk about pretentious in its ‘consciously showy’ definition, and Kane fits the bill perfectly; with his deliberate posturing and contrived poses, he trots around the stage as if doing human dressage.

This is the Third Way of Russell; a hybrid of Russell Brand’s overstated performance and Russell Howard’s lively, youthful chat. The result may seem slightly fake, but Kane does win over the crowd with his strength of character – and his Shakespearean put-downs are charming, and in perfect keeping with the setting.

Jason Byrne, in contrast, is a natural when it comes to focussing his Sizewell-sized reserves of energy. The manic performance is larger-than-life, but the frustrations that power them are all-to real. He is a man who seems forever set on throwing a clenched fist of exasperated anger at the world.

He spits with rage at every irritant, which he sees as a personal affront. Moving from Dublin to rural Ireland, he imagines each country noise is something out to get him, and when his own DIY ends in disaster, it’s not his own incompetence that’s at fault, but his uncaring wife.

Byrne, too, mocks the poshness of the gig, teasing the latecomers over their plum-in-the-mouth pronunciation of the word ‘burger’. But riffing with the crowd is what he does best, bouncing with imagination and wit off every minor interruption, giving every performance an unbeatable air of spontaneity. That said, he’s got the prepared material to match – especially his superlative closing routine about his wife urging him to go ‘gently, gently, gently, gently’ in bed.

Andrew Lawrence had more difficulty connecting with the audience with his wretched persona, but soon won them round with the sheer quality of his hard-bitten misanthropic material. The deluge of misery that cascades out of his bitter mouth is ceaseless, firstly about his dismal life and his pathetic angst. Then, once he’s established himself as the pitiful loser, he turns his seething anguish on the rest of humanity, with the same toxicity.

His delivery, though tempered compared to the terrifyingly dark extremes of his earliest performances, remains borderline psychotic, with a voice so squeakily strained he makes celebrated joke thief Joe Pasquale sound like Barry White. He has some good, if unflinchingly sick, gags, too, which he underlines with a laboured cackle, pleased that he cracked such a funny.

Lawrence is a hugely original act, with a viciousness and satirical insight that makes him the Hogarth of stand-up; but with much stronger jokes. And his provocative ending has the audience howling, part in hilarity, part in disgust.

Richard Herring’s a brilliant one-hour act, but tends to struggle when he has to abandon the narrative arc for a 20-minute set to an audience that isn’t his alone.

He has one truly superb routine, about the childish mime for homosexuality, which cleverly wrings every last drop of humour from its basic inaccuracy; and a couple of decent ones, which very literally overanalyse maxims to live your life by, and a salacious T-shirt slogan.

But the section from his recent, excellent, Edinburgh show in which he reads embarrassingly overblown extracts from his teenage diaries fell on stonier ground. The material is almost certainly better than the audience gave him credit for, but it certainly lost impact being out of context.

Headlining the show was outspoken American rebel Doug Stanhope, the act any serious comedy fans were likely to have come for, though it was certainly a courageous booking for such a well-to-do gig. You never know what you’re going to get with Stanhope, and while this was far from his scintillating best, it wasn’t the car-crash his reckless ways sometimes lead to, either.

Admitting he was performing drunk, he started with a mischievously playful air, mocking sponsors Pimm’s with the sort of slogans they would surely not want to be associated with. Filth is a big part of Stanhope’s repertoire, and here he argued sex should be more casual and discussed intimate medical procedures, both of which prompted a litany of brutal, and rather charmless, below-the-belt material.

It inevitably drove some of the audience away, enhancing his bad-boy image; but it could have been that this section wasn’t particularly well done, as much as over the content. Still, it might have been best that the sensitive left before he got onto his material about Darfur…

But, even tipsy and even with his most extreme material, Stanhope’s routines always have a valid point at their heart, even if it’s abandoned as he warms to his offensiveness. Here he had some original thoughts on women ‘unionising’ sex, a cheekily provocative material championing eugenics as a solution to the world’s problems, and a superb payoff about the threats of terrorism, crime and immigration the media continually exaggerate.

More focus would have driven these points home harder – and he kept beating himself up for including too many US-specific punchlines, which also didn’t help. He was probably too rough around the edges to have won over too many new fans tonight, but neither would he have disappointed any old ones, who have long learned to roll with his inconsistencies for the reward of his brilliant best.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett


Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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