Hackney Empire New Act of the Year 2009

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

The first big new comedy event on the calendar, lightening the winter darkness is usually the Hackney Empire new act show. A hundred people had auditioned to bring 16 finalists to possibly the most beautiful comedy stage in London.

Growling his way through the opening remarks, compere Arthur Smith kept matters mercifully brief for what was always going to be a long night before introducing Jon Kudlick who made a good opener. There must be some comedy course which tells people: ‘Start with a deprecating remarking about your appearance’ as he – and a fair few other acts – did just that. From this slightly standard approach he moved through amusing remarks on office etiquette, where he never can say goodbye in a sufficiently businesslike fashion to some stronger, more terse observations on parenting and whether or not you can really take credit for a writing a book, when it’s no more than a sentence and printed on cotton.

Next off the blocks was David James, prematurely grey, with great, world-weary composure, and an irritable pedantry worthy of Jack Dee. His smart, articulate material and offbeat content, with just three long routines, earned him third place at the end of the night. One of the few I would definitely want to see again soon.

In complete stylistic contrast, ebullient Ahir Shah has just turned 18 and fizzing with intelligence and energy. His opening joke about his resemblance to Mowgli fell flat, perhaps the audience reacting to a sense of transferred racism, (‘No, we don’t think all young Asian boys look like a character from the Jungle Book’). But with nary a backward glance he plunged through a mountain of material, some of which wasn’t really comedy but reporting (that inappropriate film poster at Stockwell Tube) – but who cares? He has presence, likeability and brains, he’s interested in politics, current events, culture and has time on his side to develop. Perhaps fewer topics and more attention to making them funny will bump him up the prize-winning order.

Seann Walsh has received a lot of attention and praise already in his first year of comedy, and it’s not surprising, with his disarmingly dishevelled performance, warmth and proper jokes. He came second last night.

Next up, clearly one for the programmer’s amusement, Piff The Magic Dragon. A splendid dragon costume, just right for children’s parties, dragon-related patter and some very bog standard tricks delivered with a downbeat near charm made me realise that Jerry Sadowitz, Derren Brown, even Pete Firman have nothing to worry about.

Ross Ashcroft then delivered a polished, slightly aloof performance of material that seemed all over the place. Boldly starting with the state of the world and his turning to religion, which drew audible gasps, as though there was genuine concern we were in for some evangelical Buddhism, he looped through his place in the world as a sold-out Scouser and the pros and cons of an acquired RP accent. Then some sneering about Liverpool’s laughable status as European City of Culture, the limited options left for Gordon Brown (plead insanity), Mohammed Fayed and the newly appointed butts for national stereotyping, Poles. A mixture of easy, even old, targets and ambitious intent meant that he fell between two stools. A shame, as he is better than this selection of material suggested.

After the politics and religion came the cute and fluffy, with Grainne Maguire, doing stuff about her name and how it’s always mispronounced. Another staple of the new act circuit, she was warmly likeable, reinforcing some positive stereotyping about gabby, charming friendly Irish people. Her manner was very encouraging and inclusive, but with talk about condoms being stocked next to the pregnancy tests, Riverdance being a tourist con, drunkenness and its face-saving companion, sleep, her material was scatty and pedestrian at the same time.

Now we were still only at the last act of the first half and Australian Ro Campbell lifted the slight flagging feeling with his energy and attack. Going for US politics, Saint Obama and satanic Sarah Palin, he used her anti-abortion stance to forge a link to rapists who want to be dads and a little light, miscarriage-inducing domestic violence. Very wrong, rather funny. Turning to Guantanamo Bay and its famous Australian inmate David Hicks, he romped through some less controversial Ozzie bloke material and finished the first half on a high.

After the interval, the joyous Lady Garden sketch group got things off to a flying start with four short pieces, showing excellent comic writing and comedy acting. Very well liked by the audience, the piece about the Tesco call centre that covered all life’s traumas was as intricate as an opera and ten times more fun. I could only guess that they were unplaced as they presumably don’t need the leg up that this competition could have afforded them.

Craig Murray knows his comedy roots and as a non-specific Northerner he owes a little to Jason Manford and Peter Kay in appearance and voice, and was happy to play along with Northern typecasting as vegetarian - and gay-averse. His airline material was well presented, recognisably funny and I think he’d be seen around a lot more if he spread his wings beyond his regular gigs.

Jim Park’s squashed face and Scottish burr were quite endearing and he asked an awful lot of daft questions. He was likeably confident and brazened out some good old-fashioned bad jokes. A bit of a niche market maybe, but there was something there.

Jason Patterson from Barbados via south London was a coolly well-presented guy, with confidence to burn. His material was ordinary: humourless cops, south London being rough, machismo fading in the face of mugging, girlfriend not being good enough to give to a mugger – surely, an updated version of ‘My wife, she’s that ugly …’ but he delivered with brio.

The night’s eventual winner, Fergus Craig (pictured), was up next, with a deceptively low-status presentation, from his campy ‘Hello boys!’ greeting and amusing ruminations on finding his voice – German, with a Belfast accent seemed to work for him. A Queen Mother joke, which threatened to be irritating, seven years after her death, had a good enough payoff to make it worth including, and his contrasting of his life with that of how the movies might have it rang true for all of us. A gross-out closing joke was unworthy of him, but it was good to have a nice, gently offbeat stand up with good lines win.

Local resident Gary Colman had some reasonable opening remarks about Hackney as Best Kept Village and the Murder Mile as an Olympic event but for some reason the audience seemed to lose patience with him and more whimsical stuff about dogs, and he sensibly finished up quickly as it obviously wasn’t going to end well. Mystifying, as there are far worse to be seen.

Next was big voiced Colin Owens, who did well to keep in the moment as the audience were plainly getting tired. A good storyteller of his own life – a series of embarrassing incidents interrupted by sleep – he clearly had the ability to grab and keep the attention of an audience and did a very creditable job.

Last but not least were Moonfish Rumba. Music, bumping and grinding, pelvic, songs about lesbians, beans, bad knickers and the absolute conviction that they are the funniest blokes in their office got them through their nearly nine-minute set. Trouser dropping and comedy underwear went out with the ark and should have stayed there.

Arthur Smith said at one point the standard this year was very high (true), and there were no turkeys – but I could have plucked a couple from this line-up.

As the judges went off to deliberate, last year’s finalist Imran Yusuf was handed the poisoned chalice of entertaining the already tired crowd, despite his relative inexperience. He had fantastic physical energy and presence, prowling and bounding, restless and statue still by turns, but the relentless machine gun delivery, the repetitive styling, the determination to keep the audience off kilter and uncomfortable became extremely irritating.

This was definitely the strongest lineup at the Hackney Empire New Act for a few years and it was very pleasing to have three good stand-ups take the honours, though possibly with a little surprise that Lady Garden didn’t warrant a mention.

Reviewed by: Julian Chambers
January, 2009

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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