Like all the best ideas, the Leicester Comedy Festival was dreamt up in a pub. The event is now in its tenth year and attracts some of the biggest names in stand-up, and audiences to match.This year's festival was launched with a preview show at De Montfort Hall, featuring some of the diverse range of names coming to the city from February 7 to 16.
The evening's host, Mark Little won't be making any other appearances at the festival. And judging by his performance here, that won't be a huge loss.He bounded on to the stage like a man who had something important to say but then very quickly revealed that he didn't, announcing: "I've got no material".
Throughout the show Little's main source of humour was the usual trick of forcing the signer for the deaf act out the sign language for words like 'scrotum' and 'shag'.
It is a shame to say that she was far funnier than he was.
Although thin on material Little's scatty unprepared style engaged the audience, who seemed happy to chuckle along as he filled time.
For the rest of the night he wisely kept his contribution down to a minimum, introducing the acts and quickly getting off stage.
Little's confidence as a performer rescued him from completely floundering but by the end of the night it looked like he just couldn't be bothered.
Irishman Kevin Hayes started the first half with an amusing take on English and Irish culture, packing a wealth of material into a relaxed ten-minute set.
Although close to being an old-school comic, his delivery was fresh enough to redeem his more traditional material and he proved himself an assured if unremarkable performer.
Ventriloquist Nina Conti last year's BBC New Comedy Award-winner was next up.
She had a relaxed stage manner and clearly knows her material inside-out, but then there isn't much of it to know.
She enjoys shocking the audience and plays the part of the innocent sidekick to her lascivious Monkey perfectly.
Conti has an uninspiring set but her obvious charm helps to soften the disappointment.
Equally charismatic is Neil Mullarkey's latest character, the lifestyle guru and motivational speaker L Vaughan Spencer.Wearing a salmon-pink suit and David Seaman ponytail, 'L-Vo' is "the impresario of your best case scenario" who rattled through a hilarious set, filled with catchphrases and culminating in a big musical finish.
Stalking the stage like a manic faith healer Mullarkey reels off gag after gag, involving the audience and clearly loving his new character.
At times it can seem to be a bit of a warm-up for material that doesn't arrive but what we are given is so good it doesn't really matter.
Also on top form was Jimmy Carr, fresh from his Royal Variety Performance triumph.
What followed was a collection of deadpan one liners straight out of the top drawer. Carr is like a less miserable Jack Dee, delighting in the audience's shocked reactions.
Although you can guess a few of his punchlines, Carr held the audience in the palm of his hand, even having to tell them off for laughing too much.
The only act of the night to receive an encore, Jimmy Carr is creating a new British classic with his brilliant set.
A Londoner of Irish parentage John Ryan started the second half with a confident performance. His mixed background permeates his set and his cheeky, slightly risqué material suits his Jack The Lad persona to a T, from the pitfalls of the Irish premature ejaculation help-line to the new Cockney airline.
Apart from a couple of shaky impressions of Bush and Blair his material is strong and original. However he is a fairly unchallenging performer, and you feel that he has the skill to tackle more difficult subjects.
Playing the home advantage, Leicester lad Gary O'Donnell had the whole audience behind him as he performed probably the biggest gig of his career.
An energetic performer, O'Donnell runs around the stage like an excited schoolboy, but his energy could nnot mask his nervousness and he seemed shocked to find himself on the stage of the vast De Montfort Hall.
O'Donnell's brand of observational in-jokes seemed to exclude those of us who weren't born in Leicester or didn't go to Gary's school. However his excitement and energy are infectious and you can't help but go along with his trip down memory lane.
Though somewhat limited by his material he is a talented performer clearly loved by the partisan crowd who chanted, Jerry Springer-style, "Ga-ry, Ga-ry" as he left the stage. Hopefully this experience will spur him on to look outside Leicester for material.
Dressed immaculately in black tie, 'distinguished variety performer' Count Arthur Strong creaked on to the stage to regale the audience with tales from his life in showbusiness.From Perry Como ("a stupid name for a grown man"), to his work with "St Anne's Jambulance", the senile old count proves an hilarious character act.
Strong - the creation of Steve Delaney - gave one of the standout performances of the night, at one stage accosting the signer with "I like a drink as much as the next man, but you'vegone too far."
In fact so convincing is he that you fear he may grind to a halt at any moment or simply collapse on stage. Catch him before he does just that.
Described by host Mark Little as "the icing on the cake" were the physical mime act Men In Coats.They prove an engaging act, clowning it up to the obvious delight of the audience. Part of their appeal is the fluid execution of what must be enormously challenging skits that leave you wondering: "How did they do that?
However their entire routine is simply a variation of the same joke and, although entertaining, you do start to experience a feeling of déjà vu as the simple idea is milked for every possibility. Will they ever be able to expand on their set?
But with a wide range of styles - from cabaret through character to deadpan one-liners - this preview certainly proved a suitable taster for the huge variety of shows on offer at the festival proper - more than 140 at the last count. On the basis of tonight's samples, there are more than a couple of acts worth seeing more of.
January 12, 2003