Midlands Comedian Of The Year 2011

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s probably endemic of the open mic circuit as a whole, but the final of Midlands Comedian Of The Year, held as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival, produced a respectable crop of technically competent performers and a good few chuckles – but little thrills.

With a line-up of 16 would-be comics threatening to test the patience of the most hardcore comedy-goer, the night trundled along surprisingly amiably... but the excitement of discovering an original star of the future was notably absent. Instead this seemed to be a demonstration of how adept everyone was at employing the accepted conventions and language of comedy – I lost count of how many times the phrase ‘I know what you’re thinking…’ came up – rather than showcasing original comic voices.

Winner Dave Jolly certainly has a relaxed and amiable stage persona, if a bit Gervaisy at times with his one-word sentences. Weird. There’s some nice material about testing out his material in front of an audience of stuffed toys, whimsical but with a punchline, and a bit about the Rampant Rabbit that bypasses cliché. His affability was put to the test by the night’s only heckler, who interrupted an admittedly workmanlike section about extreme home makeover shows, but Jolly kept his cool, and won points for his poise. But even then, this was a solid, rather than spectacular offering.

Runner-up Masai Graham had the sort of one-liners you’ll find all over Twitter – or even inside Christmas crackers, in some of his cheesier moments. But although there are groans a-plenty, right from the start, he’s strangely charming and the audience instinctively start warming to him, coming to stick with him through good jokes and bad. He has plenty of both. There’s a few hackneyed old gags about dyslexics, but a few flashes of proper genius. Most are somewhere in the middle; with many promising lines that could still do with an extra twist to really hit home.

Rewind to the start of the gig, and opening act Jay Edwards has an even more pronounced divide between his best stuff and his worst. Confidently taking his time to get comfy, his flip-pad of visual dingbats based around the number 69 starts weakly, but builds in invention and wit. Yet between these bookends are some limp anecdotes – though that is stretching the term – when he pronounced something slightly wrong in Japanese and it meant something entirely different. You probably have to speak the language to really get this, but I suspect he’s telling the truth. If he made it up, he would surely have made it funnier.

Grandmother Sarah Hendrickx has a touch of Linda Smith in her on-stage stance, with her low-energy, wearily downbeat attitude. The analogy doesn’t extend to the impact she has, though, as her material about her terrible husband and terrible children couldn’t burst above mildly enjoyable.

Pete Smith, a cheery, fat, slightly camp comedian in an ill-fitting shirt, failed to capitalise on his likeabilty, with a few uninspired sheep-shagging gags plus obvious double entendres read into a leisure centre advert that could easily sound a bit rude. There’s a little more flair in his quips about having parents who are swingers, but it’s hard to tell if these cheap (but reliable) lines come from truth or contrivance.

Adnan Ahmed used to work for this festival before turning performer, and he’s picked up a fair few tips on the way. Disarmingly laid-back, he’s calmly charming with light but enjoyable observations on race. His cadence is a little too deliberate, and he overplays some of his ideas such as the ‘race card’ till they lose their humour, but he’s reliable enough,

Birmingham-based Cornishwoman Harriet Dyer told a couple of predictable incest gags, a Bonnie Tyler gag that’s done the email rounds, then a tortured routine about he granddad thinking that women in burkas look like they’re in letterboxes. Tales from her delinquent youth promised more, but didn’t really deliver.

From that well-known Midlands town of Glasgow, the cool and collected Stuart Mitchell starts strong, with wry references to his missing fingertips and an inappropriate cruise-ship magazine. But even in five minutes, the quality subsides into jokes revolving around how fat and/or ugly his girlfriend is, or tagged with lazy ‘…and then I got off the bus’ style reveals.

Another strong start from Thomas Norman, with an impressive set piece set to a thumping soundtrack. The rest of the routine, though, is half-finished, with gags about old people texting or ancient, cheesy and uncomfortably dated lines like: ‘I’m not black, I’ve just got a very good tan’. That’s without mentioning the rap a semi-coherent Straight Outta Leicester number drowned out by the clapping he instigated – a problem exacerbated since neither he or the audience seem to agree on the beat.

Fliss Russell has a lovely persona – but dull material. Engaging effervescence fizzles out under long-winded build-ups, and a me-me-me attitude that means she keeps telling us directly what she’s like, rather than using jokes to let us figure it out for ourselves.

Mark Tigwell tried to deconstruct the stand-up cliché of drawing attention to his looks by mentioning various similarly tall people, but succeeded only in deconstructing our confidence in his ability. It’s muddled, and once he loses the audience in the first minute he doesn’t get them back. A couple of nicely-phrased observations on more straightforward topics are hidden in there somewhere, but he’s trying to be too ambitious with the self-referential stuff before he’s established his credentials.

A familiar pattern with Pete Teckman: a strong opening gambit about his looks (short and bald) but the material wobbles away in such easy territory as wordplay around the ‘lady garden’ euphemism. He comes across as a nice guy, which is a good start, but not enough to make a nice comic.

American Sarah Cassidy is half Scottish, half Jewish – cue obvious joke about being tight-fisted that she spelt out unnecessarily. There are a couple of nice ideas around national stereotypes here – the Americans for developing canned cheese and the British attitude to health and safety – and while it could do with sharpening up shows quite some promise. Despite having all the ethnic credentials for a punchy stand-up delivery, she actually doesn’t sell her good ideas particularly well; but a couple of battle-scarred years on the circuit could bash this into a tidy set.

Ryan O’Donoghue appears to want to be Jack Whitehall – which is ironic as I’m not sure Jack Whitehall entirely knows who he wants to be yet. This youngster has the quirky indie haircut and deliberately affected movements and poses, undermined only by his constant looking at his watch. Material-wise, there are a handful of enjoyably cheesy lines, and some half-decent stories that tend to revolve around previous gigs suggesting narrow life experience, but it’s fairly lightweight. Jack Litehall, maybe?

Dom Lister is back to the ‘nice delivery, shame about the material’ template of so many of tonight’s acts. He follows comic convention, but tries to hard to make the unfunny funny. What’s the deal with laser eye surgery quoting the price PER EYE? he asks in mock confusion, to which the answer is obviously that a lot of people are short-signed in one eye. But on such insecure foundation he tries to spins a sarcastic, exaggerated routine. And his zealous defence of going the cinema alone needs to be torn up and begun again, this time with jokes.

Finally, wildly inconsistent Ben Briggs, with some truly awful jokes, and some very nice touches, especially in his tales of awkward sexual exploits from the point of view of a later developer. He has an inherently appealing style to him, though, and could yet find a more distinctive path.

A night, then, dogged by largely superficial material. There were lots of engaging personalities chatting away amiably enough – the time, surprisingly, didn’t drag at all – but little in the way of original comic voices that just to be heard or more than brief flashes of excellent. Is this a consequence of the ‘comedy course’ democratisation of stand-up?

Review date: 9 Feb 2011
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