Adam Belbin

Adam Belbin

Winner of the Laughing Horse new act of the year competition 2011
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Laughing Horse new act final 2011

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Bad news for hubristic comics everywhere: there’s a host of talent snapping at your heels, all poised to make their mark on the circuit with funny and distinctive routines. That’s the evidence offered by the final of this year’s Laughing Horse new act contest, bursting with impressive hopefuls.

Amid such competition, even those stand-ups with perfectly decent sets struggle to stand out – let alone those who fall short. Into that first category falls opening act Lauren Shearing, a solid writer with assured performance skills who would be a reliable addition to any mid-level comedy night. Her wide-appeal material about funerals, dating and singledom was enjoyable and flecked with skilful turns of phrase, and although her delivery seemed too rehearsed, as she eased into her literal discussion of a body-language expert’s advice, she showed a more natural aptitude for subtle physical humour. A fair showing in the opening ‘death spot’.

Patrick Lappin’s inspirations lies somewhere between Stewart Lee and Richard Herring; a weary misanthrope, but with cheeky edge, all expressed with a stinging wit. His seven-minute routine went a little strange towards the end, but his fluid, energetic delivery and delightfully disorientating audience banter mark him out as an original. That such a strong act wasn’t even placed tonight goes to show the heights finalists had to achieve.

That makes the achievement of Adam Belbin – the next act and the ultimate winner – even more laudable. He appeared shy and awkward, but has moulded his bashfulness into a delightful comic persona, backed with some killer lines – as well as some truly dismal ones. But how he plays with those forced puns, teasing the audience with their awfulness, is what make the set so delightful. Throw in an undercurrent of self-loathing loneliness and you have a complex character exploiting his vulnerability for some defty written gags. He’s clearly one of the newest of the new, but definitely one to watch.

Henry Ginsberg is more established, having been performing since 2005, but the Laughing Horse makes no hard-and-fast rules about eligibility. As you might expect, his delivery was as well polished as his jokes – which again came from a rather bleak, introspective point of view. But Ginsberg makes nihilism jaunty, and his honesty and adept craftsmanship made for another excellent routine.

At the other end of the emotional scale is Darren Walsh – a silly happy-go-lucky chap who reveals absolutely nothing of himself in a performance that concentrates on upbeat Knockabout stuff. He’s basically an aural prop comic, using his FX pedals, live looping and preprogrammed backing beats to package a fast-paced carousal of gags, surreal nonsense and snippets of daft songs that bring to mind Harry Hill’s fragmented style. Gimmicky, yes – but a real crowd-pleaser, with originality and personality by the bucketload; certainly enough to earn him a joint third place.

After the first interval, the ultra-deadpan Darren Maskell upped the weirdness with a low-key, yet strangely funny, routine about his favourite coathangers. But it was rather like the padded example he brought along: not a favourite, but still something that brightens up the day. However, the second half of his set went badly awry, when he evoked vivid images of child abductions, then couldn’t produce the comic syrup to take away the nasty taste. An odd cove, indeed, but too inconsistent tonight.

Soft-spoken Welshman Tommy Rowson had a few engaging quirks to a performance defined by his underplayed underdog charm, but ultimately he proved too low-key to really engage. There are a smattering of nice lines in his set, but it slumps too much in between.

Next up, Steve Bugeja with one of the least interesting entries of the night; feeling all too much like he was a comic who fell off a production line. Regaling us with mates’ laddish behavior in a set laced with a whiff of misogyny, his clichéd performance and writing were straight from a ‘how to do comedy’ guide, with contrived ‘imagine if this happened…’ set-ups for scenarios acted out with slickness but no soul.

Chris Turner rescued the second section with his pun-laden set that earned him the other joint bronze. He’s another low-energy deadpanner, although the quality of his writing largely overcomes that ennui. Deliberate and unemotional, he’s  too similar in style to the likes of established circuit acts Anthony J Brown and Gary Delaney; although he might be well advised to follow Delaney’s relatively recent discovery of the benefits of relaxing more. But he’s such an exemplary writer of quotable gags – expect to see them stolen by Cheggers before too long.

Opening the third section was sassy South Londoner Suzy Wylde, who certainly brings a charismatic spark to her tales of life on a grimy estate, which promise a different point of view in a stand-up circuit overwhelmingly dominated by middle-class men. Yet she’s also quite clearly a newbie, not letting her anecdotes or even her style fully develop. She moves too swiftly between subjects, showing she’s not yet sure where her strengths lie, to the detriment of both clarity and establishing her persona. She even includes a couple of uncanny impressions, which go down well, but feel tacked-on. The girl’s certainly got promise, though.

Mark Stephenson, too, is definitely a comic with a future. At first the audience didn’t quite know what to make of him, as tales of the desolation of unemployment and his relationship with his ageing grandmother didn’t immediately appear to be the stuff of comic gold. But he has such an astute eye for observation and such a gift for expressing himself with subtlety and oblique wit that, even towards the end of a long night, he had the audience eating out of his hand. With such depth of material making misery beautiful, it’s easy to imagine him creating some Hancock-style sitcom about the futility of existence. For now, though, he is a great addition to the live comedy scene, and a worthy winner of the Laughing Horse silver in a close-fought race.

But if Stephenson showed the creative scope of comedy, Rory O’Hanlon was an example of how it can be hampered by a lack of ambition. Comedians never seem to tire of making ginger jokes, and he’s no exception, which he then followed up with further unoriginal material about getting through US immigration, a ‘craic’ pun and how ridiculous a concept British and Irish people find the ‘two drink minimum’ requirement in American comedy clubs… He’s got presence, poise and timing, all those sort of much-need assets, just nothing interesting to say with them.

The same criticisms apply to Damian Kingsley, possibly the first ever new act entrant to have the ‘dead-behind-the-eyes’ distance of a circuit veteran trotting out their tired 20 minutes for the 15th straight year. A quick Google reveals he has been going for five years, mainly playing to expats in Tokyo – which explains the slick confident delivery. But his material, mainly concerning exaggerated reactions to abuses of the English language, seemed contrived and a bit too lazy. Still, the audience seemed to like hi, so maybe a middling career in some of the clubs that always play it safe awaits.

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Published: 30 May 2011


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