The Gareth Morinan Alternative New Act of The Year Award 2013 | Review by Steve Bennett at the Wilmington Arms, London

The Gareth Morinan Alternative New Act of The Year Award 2013

Note: This review is from 2013

Review by Steve Bennett at the Wilmington Arms, London

So fierce is the competition to become a comedian that the circuit is awash with new act contests. The most respected – run by the BBC, So You Think You’re Funny or, dare we say it, Chortle – earn their reputation from a scrupulously rigorous judging process.

Alternatively you could set up an arbitrary final, invite your favourite acts to take part, and anoint the champion on audience reaction, so encouraging performers to drag along their own supporters. Plenty do this, but only Gareth Morinan’s Alternative New Act Of The Year Award World Final has the brass neck to make it an asset. But a title is a title, even if the spoils amount to just 50 pence.

First up, after some shambolic compering from our award patron, was Jack Grant, sharing the misery of unemployment. He hasn’t struck the right balance yet between being downbeat and being depressing – which he as much as admitted when he had to assert ‘this is comedy!’ while setting a pallid mood. In a set piece about turning the myriad rejection letters he receives on its head, Grant demonstrates a subversively mischievous streak – but for too much of the routine, the tone is too dour for us to laugh at his pain.

Next, pointedly oddball Jack D’eath with a rather more deliberate attempt to be alternative, with a routine complete with surprisingly concealed props and a Chesney Hawkes scatter graph. There’s a sense that the ideas are better than the execution; and that he’s trying a little too hard to be zany without genuine conviction, but D’eath is, at least, putting the effort in; and the shenanigans show promise.

Beth Vyse presented a more clear-cut character act, appearing on stage as Betsy Lynn, in Rastafarian hat and carrying a baby doll, intoning like a batty Shakespearean actress. Once this settles down, there’s a music-hall charm to her cheesy lines, bizarre back-story and nicely unexplained physical tics that give her creation an internal logic, however warped. It’s uneven but very watchable despite the strangeness, and a worthy recipient of one of the 20p runner-up slots.

But for proper alternative, we have to turn to Michael Brunstrom, who took to the stage in the garb of a 14th Century peasant, as he regaled us with passages from the Canterbury Tales with proper Chaucerian pronunciation, strange though it may sound to modern ears. as he read, he deadpanned the most inexplicable slapstick behaviour, that it would spoil the act to go into here, but it give his three minutes on stage a real crackle. Big, bold and dumb, this is precisely the sort of thing that should be in an alternative new act showcase. First place!

President Obonjo, despite the promising name, was possibly the least alternative act you could imagine. His opening gambit was: I’m from Nigeria, but no I’m not a toilet attendant/traffic warden/email fraudster and the rest was as formulaic as the start. There might be a way of playing with stereotypes in here somewhere, but it’s buried deep beneath the sort of tired comedy tropes you’d learn on a bad comedy course.

Just as President Obonjo was not a character, nor was Pierre Francais, despite being the nom de guerre of Sam Quinn. He’s not actually French, and no further reference to the name was made. He is, in fact, from South Shields, and seemed to hope his native accent wouldl make his simplistic surrealism seem lilting. He makes little connection to the audience as he wibbles on about You’ve Been Framed or an ancestor making the dodo extinct, in a forgettable routine that makes virtually no impact on the room. He seems unfocussed about what he’s doing, which is fatal in any comedian ... except those for whom lack of focus is a endearing fallacy. Here it’s unfortunately real.

William Lee talks about Chinese people through the prisms of ethnic food and Eighties martial arts video games, which might be considered racist were he not of that heritage himself. Regardless, the references seem lazy, with the fast-talking Australian relying on breathlessly excitable pace to hold the attention more than his shaky, sometimes confusing, content.

Phil O’Shea makes an asset of awkwardly over-explaining his observational comedy – in this case a routine about people leaping out of giant birthday cakes – and the tenuous way he tries to extend the idea. He has the underplayed sensibilities of the ‘anti-comedy’ movement, where knowingly selling a joke is anathema, and although it’s not quite clear whether he’s endearingly distracted, or just distracted, he’s a quietly enjoyable chap.

Jennifer Belander plays up the ditzy blonde/super-neurotic American with aplomb; and while she’s a effervescent presence, she seems more actress than stand-up. Her style feels learned, rather than natural, while the set primarily exists to showcase her range of regional US accents. It’s a good range, too, but needs more of a comic reason to be displayed than the paper-thin set-up she offered here.

Another national stereotype next, with Luc Frensch – an arrogant Gallic cliché in the vain vein of Alexis Dubus’s Marcel Lucont. It’s rather too close, in fact, as it invites comparisons in which the genuinely French newcomer is destined to come off worst. The character, as you might expect, has only two things on his mind – food and mistresses – but that leads to a routine that’s one-note, and not sharply enough written to make that a positive.

Finally, Richard Stainbank, who’s been doing well in more strictly monitored new act competitions than this one for the past couple of years. He could not be accused of neglecting the writing, as his set is packed with punchlines and evocative turns of phrase that make it funny, despite the grim subject matter of his pitiful existence as an unemployed, poor, overweight man. He remains a promising newer comic, making mirth from misery, but mere words cannot compete with a slapstick stunt – so came a close second to the clownish Brunstrom.

Review date: 24 Jun 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Wilmington Arms

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