City Life Comedian Of The Year Final 2008

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

You couldn’t hope for a better demonstration of changing tastes in comedy than the contrast between the host and the winner of the City Life competition to find the best comedian in the north-west.

Celebrity compere for the night was John Thomson, largely in character as Bernard Righton – a creation with its roots in a time when racist, sexist old-school comedians still had a large audience, but the new politically-correct movement was snapping at its heels. Meanwhile, winner Eddie Hoo conclusively proved that the original tenets of alternative comedy have gone the same way as that which preceded it, and that hideously offensive material is back in vogue - only now with added irony. Thank you, Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr, for this new licence.

The new landscape means Righton, who subverts old gags with new liberal-friendly punchlines, is certainly showing his age ‘There’s a black fella, a Pakistani and a Jew having a drink… what a fine example of an integrated community,’ is his classic gag, but tonight the shtick fell flat. The younger members of the audience were perhaps unsure of what he was parodying, the older ones already too familiar with Righton’s once-topical act to find it amusing yet another time.

Thomson, who’s barely gigged in years, was an odd choice of MC. He lacked the skills to generate the right atmosphere for the green-gilled newcomers, simply ploughing through his uninteractive set, then reading (sometimes ineptly) questionnaires the contestants had filled in by way of introduction. This is no way to compere.

He was more relaxed when he came on as himself in the third section, acknowledging that Righton was a one-gag act that couldn’t sustain an evening, but he still didn’t seem right. Had the sponsors wanted their star draw, they should have booked him to perform a set while the judges deliberated, and left the hosting to one of the many match-fit MCs in the north-west.

But on other levels, this final did prove a success. Given the region has such a thriving comedy scene, the competition has suffered a couple of lean years. To combat the slide, organisation of the 2008 heats was handed over to the respected promoter of the XS Malarkey club Toby Hadoke, who found a more consistent batch of finalists.

It would still be a surprise if this turned out to be a vintage year, as it was when the likes of Caroline Aherne, Johnny Vegas and Peter Kay took part, but it was certainly a quantum leap on 12 months ago.

Student Joe Lycett had the unenviable task of going on first, to a room barely raised above the lukewarm by Righton’s tired gags. Aged just 20, he has a very relaxed confidence on stage, alternately lolloping around like it was his natural environment, or leaning nonchalantly back, one arm on a barstool for support. There’s an engaging physicality to his performance, mostly natural, although occasionally slipping into the theatrical. But he hasn’t, on the whole, got the material to match his appealing presence. There are a few nice observations, but he does struggle to land the gags to go with them. But at least he put the audience at their ease.

Man-in-black Mick McGrath had a set that rambled all over the shop. He attempted to be bleak from the start with a routine about roadside death, but had neither the gags nor charisma to pull it off, and the subject matter, combined with his dull voice, created a rather depressing atmosphere. After that, the set sprawled out confusingly in all sorts of directions, including a recurring gag about the stolen key to a library toilet that’s almost unfathomable. Any sort of thread he may once have had quickly unravelled into a jumbled mess of half-finished thoughts. Focus, man. Focus!

In light of tonight’s compere, Eddie Hoo came out with a corking icebreaker, insisting: ‘This is a carefully orchestrated character act, not a randomly pissed Chinese man.’ Could have fooled me… but drunk or not, he has some brutal, edgy material. A few gas are rather ordinary, such as another take on the ‘hit me at 30…’ public-service adverts, but in the second half of his set, when all niceties not just thrown out of the window, but brutally killed and buried in a shallow grave, got the laughs to match the shocks. His brusque delivery isn’t particularly slick or charming, but the writing more than compensates with gags that are both razor-sharp and deliciously over-the top, and rightly brought the house down.

Phil Buckley was the only one of tonight’s contestants who described himself as a professional comedian; and certainly an air of slick expertise pervaded his whole act, with a cool, unhurried delivery and a likeable demeanour. But there was little distinctive about his lightweight collection of anecdotes, which often revolved around practical jokes executed by others. Then there’s his bit about chat-up lines, and another about chavvy women, all very safe territory, almost anyone could cover. He tells it all nicely enough, and can raise an easy smile – but rarely, for me at lease, much of a laugh.

Rachel Fairburn, introduced rather patronisingly for being the only woman on the bill, is another act with oodles of charm, if not yet the rock-solid jokes to back it up. She’s sweet, amiable and engaging with an air of vulnerable naivity, which she then subverts by talking at length about serial killers. Away from this she kept on telling us how immature she was, but not very convincingly. A comic shouldn’t have to tell us explicitly what they are like – it should come out naturally in the material or her persona. This niggle aside, Fairburn does employ some nifty turns of phrase and is broadly enjoyable, but lacks the killer instinct for the punchline.

Mick Sergeant, the subtle, complex and appealing creation of Lee Fenwick, is starting to make waves, and it’s easy to see why. He’s an unemployed Geordie shipyard worker, fresh off a comedy course, who uses his stage time to voice his considerable list of beefs, many of which involve his ex-wife who dumped him for being so depressing. The character is utterly complete, with Fenwick skilfully mixing defiance, desperation and misery – and yet making it funny. Or bastard funny, as he would say. He possibly belongs in a sitcom more than he does on a stand-up stage, but it’s still an hilarious and beautifully-drawn character who, on another night, could have won. In the event, he secured third place.

Most of geeky Gareth Urwin’s set involved a tortured extended metaphor comparing himself – and specifically his ill-fated schoolboy attempts at football – with the planet (or near-planet) Pluto. The stupid audacity of the linguistic device is the joke, but although it’s a very neat idea, he hasn’t quite got the gags to back it up. Again, though, the delivery is a winner, as Urwin has an entertainingly upbeat style. A few home-drawn DIY sketches bring the set to a close, though they trigger sniggers rather than belly-laughs.

Rod Shepherd, Conspiracy Theorist, is a nice idea in the vein of Simon Munnery’s Alan Parker Urban Warrior – but not yet as sharp or bitingly concise. There are a few nice gags in the set, especially a couple of visual ones, but the character isn’t fully-formed. The gags need to be about his delusion or paranoia – as, indeed some are – but often he is simply a shallow vehicle for daft jokes about Jim Bowen or Rod Hull. But Jeff Downs, the man behind him, is a commandeering performer and the premise is very sound indeed. He could really make something of this creation. If he doesn’t it’s probably the Jews conspiring against him.

Charming Ben Davis talks with all the urgency of a stroke victim. But his very slow, quiet delivery – somewhat akin to circuit favourite Alun Cochrane – does have the advantage of drawing the audience towards him. It takes a while to adjust to his pace, but ultimately it’s very beguiling. The set is not aways hilarious, but there is a neatness, originality and maturity to his sophisticated writing, rich with esoteric references. ‘Classy’ would cover it – and explains his second placing on the podium.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
October 2008

Review date: 1 Oct 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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