Chris Norton Walker

Chris Norton Walker

Leicester Comedy Festival 2018 preview show

Gig review by Steve Bennett at De Montfort Hall

With the Leicester Comedy Festival celebrating its 25th anniversary, the temptation would have been to roll out the stars for the gala preview show. But instead, the line-up was almost celebrity free, save for host Ed Byrne and possibly Xtra Factor presenter Matt Richardson… although even he had to admit that he’s at such a low level of fame that he’s a pointless answer on Pointless.

Instead, the showcase proved to casual punters that you don’t need to seek out big names to have big laughs, with several of the relatively low-profile acts storming the packed 2,000-seat De Montfort Hall, and hopefully boosting ticket sales for when the festival proper kicks off on February 7.

It certainly worked for musical duo Flo and Joan, who have sold out their festival gig after storming the preview show with the stand-out performance of the night. The pair – real-life sisters Nicola and Rosie Dempsey – are currently appearing in adverts for the Nationwide Building Society, in which they get to perform their warm and witty ditties without apparent compromise to the commercial imperative.

Live, they proved even more impressive in the space of just two contrasting songs. The first used a question they encountered on the internet, ‘Is a Big Mac with bacon still a Big Mac?’, to ponder all manner of other insoluble riddles. The siblings sing quickly and crisply, packing in plenty of gags into their intricate lyrics, set to a catchy melody.

Their second, though, was a slow-burner, a seemingly sincere a capella folk ballad about a woman living in the woods which gradually built up an increasingly improbably, but pleasingly alliterative, picture. Laughs accumulate, too, as the audience gradually come on board with the game they are playing. The response at the end of the set was explosive.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Flo and Joan weren’t on until the second half, so let’s rewind to the start.

As well as being recognisable off the telly, Byrne’s an ideal no-nonsense compere to keep a show like this tight and energetic, while still stamping his own mark on proceedings, with relatable tales of being a middle-class hands-on dad, in contrast to the typical 1970s parenting his own father practised. ’No nonsense’ also applies to Byrne’s attitude to the audience: he rightly ripped into one ignorant twat using his phone in the front row with a righteous vigour.

Our host also revealed links to the festival as his wife Claire – who plays a lead part in many of Byrne’s routines, often providing a sarcastic putdown to ground him – was one of the students who helped set up the event 25 years ago.

Opening act Chris Norton Walker opened with a routine of unflashy one-liners, some great, some not-so (the ‘let me tell you a bit about my background’ gag is ancient). His pleasing line in self-deprecation leads to a barrage of gags about his appearance that become a bit predictable, although he brings some flashes of originality to the familiar trope, as he does to his uneven set.

Sardonic Sarah Keyworth – earning a pantomime boo for being from Nottingham but winning them back because she studied in Leicester – had some wry, waggish lines about her sexuality, although her casual, near-deadpan, delivery didn’t quite have the energy the large room requires.

Alasdair Beckett-King, who was crowned Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year 12 months ago, was another hit of the night with his well-practised putdowns about being ginger. But his stand-out section was offering his own take on William Blake’s Proverbs Of Hell, adding a few more quotidian morsels of advice to the poet’s 18th Century classic. It’s an original and effective framing device for some equally inventive observations and made him a memorable act on the packed line-up.

Bilal Zafar mixed self-mocking material about his downbeat demeanour with his trademark routine about an online bust-up with racists who thought – thanks to a practical joke by his brother – that he was running a bakery that served only Muslims. This story seemed a little flatter than usual, rushed and without the actual tweets coming up on screen, even though its full-length version is an understated delight.

Chris Washington was another revelation, conclusively proving why he was a deserved best newcomer nominee at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. He’s from near Peter Kay’s hometown of Bolton and shares his accent, but also his warm, common touch as he wittily speaks about everyday matters and shares personal tales of why he likes the quiet life. Case in point: for his work experience he chose the decidedly unambitious job of being a dinner ‘lady’. Sadly for his desire for a modest life, his skills as a comic are likely to lead to a lot of work.

Then came Flo and Joan, and after them, Matt Richardson, with a routine combining high energy and low humour as he told a grubby story about removing his drunk girlfriend’s tampon with a compelling verve. Such essentially laddish humour might be falling out of vogue, but Richardson’s powerhouse delivery and roguish affability pushed it though. Derisive comments about the suburb of Beaumont Leys and a self-deprecating routine about being the subject of peculiar sexual fantasy fiction online helped get the audience on-side for the more explicit material, too.

Following such a lively performance, and closing the gala, was a tall order for the more softly-spoken Tom Lucy, who charmed the audience with low-status gags about being camp but not gay and his mum’s faux pas. This fresh-faced 21-year-old might have been better going on first rather than last, given his casual, fireworks-free delivery and material – but his charismatic likability goes a long way.

• The Leicester Comedy Festival runs from  February 7 to 25. Website.

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Published: 15 Jan 2018



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