Oxjam comedy night

Gig review by Steve Bennett at Spiritual bar, Camden

The annual Oxjam fundraising week of music gigs across Camden, the heart of London bandland, last night kicked off with its very first comedy gig; and in a venue – an intimate Brazilian cocktail bar – that had never hosted stand-up before. Yet despite some rookie errors, primarily stage lighting that could have been outshone by a glowworm, the graffiti-walled, hipster-friendly room worked well.

It probably shouldn’t have started with such a rookie, either, as Rousha Browning’s inexperience showed; although the ultra-supportive audience and David Whitney’s effective if largely straightforward compering ensured her safe passage. She’s a poet, which can be a difficult genre for a stand-up gig as the forced rhythms and rhymes are contrary to the illusion of conversation, so need to a strong stylistic sense, as John Hegley does.

But Browning undersold them, while the content sometimes lacked ambition, such as bitching about the vanity of one of her Instagram ‘friends’ or going route-one smutty about lesbian sex (even doing the hack ‘dodged rhyme’ when it sounds like she’s going to drop the c-bomb before making a substitution). The personal verse about how she found herself with a gay boyfriend – and the tell-tale signs she should have spotted – is a highlight; but even so it’s hard to identify what the poetry medium adds that a from-the-heart talk wouldn’t, as she cuts a personable figure on stage. Still, she’s just a few months into comedy, and finding a voice is rarely easy.

Don Tran puts distance between himself and his audience, too, by virtue of a near-comatose deadpan so severe he barely moves his arms from his side, let alone display any emotional range. It’s cold; but luckily most of his cunning one-liners largely overcome the frigidity by playfully and cleverly twisting expectations to witty effect. There are some great gags here any wordsmith would have been proud to have penned – and admittedly a couple of more contrived examples, too. The lack of emotion would probably become an issue after much more than the ten minutes he did here, but he’s a strong writer.

It’s the other way around for Jimmy Bird, who has the rhythms of stand-up down to pat, delivering fairly ordinary sentences. In short burst of words. To give them an impact. They don’t really deserve. For much of his material is ordinary and overfamiliar, such as the laddish tale of drunkenly pulling a woman-mountain called Big Linda at a nightclub, or being mugged by a youth. Yet there are also a couple of routines that stand out because of their vivid description: his time as a Brighton lifeguard or the horrific consequences of exam stress.

Mike Shephard probably needs to put his Stewart Lee DVDs away for a bit, because he mimics every mannerism: the repetition, the pauses, the interrupting his own sentences to reiterate the point – inevitably inviting comparisons that are unlikely to flatter the relative newcomer. Also like Lee, his set is fortified with irony, as he dedicates a lot of time praising ‘Brave Hitler’, and acting out in drawn-out detail how he imagined the origins of the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute to be: the Fuhrer sheepishly making the suggestion to his party faithful as he stares shyly at his shoes. You know, in the way Stewart Lee might do it...

This might not be so important if Shephard could, erm, shepherd the audience along on his torturous journey with him, but he left most of them behind tonight, producing a set that seemed more like a mildly wry lecture than a laugh-out-loud routine.

In contrast, Jeremy O’Donnell is all about getting the audience behind him. He’s most regularly deployed as a compere, and that training manifested itself with some unique observations about the gig – including addressing the dim lighting for the first time in the night – that lent his set an engaging air of spontaneity. However, after that, his next salvo lent heavily on cliché, instantly reducing his trip to Thailand trip to well-worn gags about ping-pong balls.

For the most part, though, he set is chummy and amusing, as he embodies the resigned British attitude of knowing that everything’s a bit shit, but being cheerily upbeat about that predicament. He probably won’t be winning prizes for comic originality, but he’s amusingly good company, as his bonhomie goes a long way.

Review date: 5 Jun 2014
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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