Leicester Square New Comedian Of The Year 2015
It was a cavalcade of funny foreigners, both actual and fictitious at the Leicester Square New Comedian Of The Year. With comedians from Japan, Malaysia, Italy and Sweden, joining characters from Russia and America, plus a Chinese-speaking Brit, it felt like comedy night at the United Nations.
A Brit first, though, with Stoke’s Jo D’Arcy. Her set rests almost entirely on her formidable performance, playing up the reactions to stories most often drawn from her previous job as a Spanish teacher. There's quite a lot of the sort of tongue-in-cheek, faux-boastful comments of the 'Boom! still got it!' type, but she pulls it off with verve, even when the material is routine. Her energy and likeability go a long way, especially in a tricky opening spot, even if a smidgeon more natural sincerity to permeate the fourth wall would go a long way.
The premise of Bilal Zafar's routine is simple enough: he became embroiled in a Twitter row after a joke that he ran a Muslim-only bakery, Zafar Cakes, got taken rather too seriously by the knee-jerk nationalists. 'It kinda escalated,' he acknowledges with delightful understatement as he leads us through his run-ins in wry detail. Reading out tweets might not seem the most inspired basis for a stand-up set, but he succeeds in translating the comedy within those 140 characters for the live medium, with every idiotic comment beautifully exposed by his relaxed, knowing performance; and the exchanges building skilfully and unexpectedly into a full narrative. It earned him a worthy second place, and it’ll be interesting to see what he can do beyond this highly focused set, too.
Louise Reay has already performed a full Edinburgh show in Chinese and here she gave a five-minute extract. For non-speakers – almost everyone else in the room – the language has a surreal semi-coherent feel, with only the occasional snippet of English breaking through… like the Teletubbies doing stand-up. Her set is, therefore, essentially a physical piece, very much in the spirit of the not-speaking-at-all Boy With Tape On His Face, including bringing up an audience member for some playful prop-based shenanigans where the joke is gradually revealed. It’s pretty funny, and the linguistic experiment certainly fascinating, even if the interaction ultimately feels more familiar than you’d expect.
This is the third time in as many weeks as I’d seen Yuriko Kotani perform her elegantly-constructed routine berating British inefficiency compared to her native Japan, inspired by the performance tables of the London Overground tables. It’s a deft and fun comparison of our relative national traits, surprisingly celebratory of Britain’s more relaxed attitude to getting things done, though it suffers on repeat hearings as it is so tightly scripted. She didn’t quite connect with the room tonight, either, but in other ways the deadpan delivery and stilted accent plays well in her favour as a bewildered foreigner. A week after winning the BBC New Comedy Award, she took the bronze here.
To Russia next – or rather the bit of Knightsbridge annexed by their super-rich – for Svetlana The Oligarch’s Wife, the high-maintenance creation of comic actor Laura Bodell. In some ways it’s easy to mock the obscene wealth, the indulgent lifestyle and the criminal links of this social elite… but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, and Bodell gets a good mileage from it. She has some solid jokes backing up her effectively-realised monster, and beyond the relatively limiting idea of having Svetlana be bad (but indecently well-funded) at stand-up, there’s clear potential for more from this larger-than-life creation. Next stop is surely a web series and more… and hopefully there won’t be polonium in the judges’ tea after she didn’t get placed.
After the first interval, came LJ Da Funk, a character with the gold necklaces of a white Mr T and the brazen swagger of a US preacher, which might put you in mind of Scottish-based Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III. But Zak Splijt wears the creation lightly, clearly enjoying himself so much that he doesn’t mind the mask slipping, making the performance hilarious in the way of someone struggling to keep a false moustache on. It’s all preposterous, but done with such ridiculously passionate commitment that he pulls everyone along in the wake of his bluster. And there are plenty of linguistic delights to perk up the performance, including unlikely catchphrases such as: ‘My comedy’s best enjoyed… retrospectively.’ So yes, you had to be there, but the spirit of brash fun was irresistible and earned him the night’s top £1,000 prize.
A complete change of approach next, with mild-mannered George Lewis, who is likely to be dogged by comparisons to Jon Richardson for a long-time to come with his meek, low-status demeanour and soft-spoken, careful delivery. Nonetheless, he’s a strong writer, with elegant lines that stand out and sparse but effective use of techniques such as callbacks to engage the attention. He was unlucky not to be placed, but he does have a couple of titles under his belt already.
Joe Jacobs was a lot less interesting, with one of the weaker sets of an otherwise impressive line-up. When he starts with a story about handing out flyers at the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a red flag that he’s not looked too far for inspiration, and so it goes, with much of his set focussing on rolling his eyes at soulless corporate jargon without offering much other than his mild irritation, making his writing as inconsequential as that which he mocks.
According to his page on the Comedy CV website Angus Dunican has been gigging since 2003, which seems like a stretch for a new act competition, even if he has only appeared on the radar in the last couple of years. In many ways, he appears ready-made for a TV presenting job, with a quiet confidence and a subtle mocking of his own poshness as part of his repertoire of material that’s amusing, but only occasionally outstanding. This makes him a bit too forgettable, even if he’s a safe pair of hands. But what’s with rolling his jacket sleeves up as if he’s a parody of a hack 1980s comic?
This year’s So You Think You’re Funny? winner Luca Cupani turned on the charm again tonight, with his sweet, almost naive approach winning fans instantly. Material-wise he’s less distinctive, talking about morning glory and breakfast cereals with payoffs you’ll be hard-pressed to remember. But never underestimate the seductive power of heavily accented English, and the audience adore this Italian with the easy charisma.
Nigel Ng has a touch of the arrogance that works so well for fellow Malaysian comic Ronnie Chieng, although Ng offers a significantly softer version. Having learnt his stand-up craft in the States, he’s an efficient performer, but a slightly formulaic one, deporting himself with learned slickness and deploying proven rhythms to his delivery of solid punchlines about his background, relationships and so forth. You feel in the safe hands of a pro, and there’s something to think about in his best lines, but it comes at the expense of personality.
‘Sweden’s eighth funniest comic’, as he bills himself, Olaf Falafel is an idiot, and wouldn’t have it any other way, performing his silly, odd one-liners with a dumb grin. He’s part Tim Vine, part Tony Law and even part Al Murray as he praises the beautiful Scandinavian names of all those he selects from the audience to co-conspire in whatever mechanism he’s using to deliver his cheesy material. The spirit of messing about is strong and infectious, and he has a lot to offer if you’re in the market offbeat puns and general foolishness.
Soft-spoken Jethro Bradley seemed to suffer a battered confidence tonight, nervously drawing attention to the fact he was reading a set list from his hand in a routine hampered by weak performance skills. Jokes are often decent, if a little unfocussed with some chaff mixed in with the wheat, and it’s hard to get a handle on just who he is. His inexperience definitely did for him, though, and he looked exposed compared to the rest.
But if you’re looking for the failings of a desperate, nervous open spot Jamie W had the lot – and deliberately so. He is a parody of the sort of act who has monumental self-belief despite only a thimbleful of talent, as he romped through various comedy styles and obscure references with certainty. He has some nice lines but the set felt like an in-joke – and one we’ve seen before – as the comparatively few chuckles he elicited would attest.
Review date: 30 Nov 2015
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett