The Edinburgh of the East Midlands

Nick Irvine attends the Leicester Comedy Festival

10:30am, Saturday, February 9, and due to tedious work commitments I sat waiting at a desolate train station in Kent having missed the first day of the Leicester Comedy Festival. This year was my fifth year attending the festival but was the first time my trip to Leicester was solely motivated by the comedy and I intended to watch as many gigs as possible over its ten-day duration – or the nine days now that I had missed Friday, and the show from Canadian comic Tony Law I had been looking forward to after I had seen a 20-minute teaser at the Comedy Store last year.

Disappointment aside, Pappy’s Fun Club were scheduled in for Saturday, their show taking place in a smallish venue above a pub. The venues at the festival range from the biggest, De Montfort Hall which holds a couple of thousand, to smaller venues like this one, Firebug. I had heard good things of this quartet at Edinburgh, and on the whole, they did not disappoint, delivering a collection of well-delivered and well-drilled sketches that gelled to form a coherent basic plot.

My only criticism was that their university roots were sometimes apparent and it felt like watching a well-rehearsed media project. Also Tom Parry who became a key figure in the act seemed to model his whole performance on We Are Klang’s Greg Davies, a man who is not the easiest to replicate. The best sketch was comedy prankster Len Taunton, whose reappearance always brought merriment. His catchphrase stayed with me for days.

The next gig was at ‘Leicester’s most loved firetrap’ in the basement of The Looking Glass pub, home of the Ship Of Fools comedy club. Resident compere and promoter Alan Seaman deserves every word of recognition for his attempts to bring a fringe feel to Leicester. But he is quick to point out that he failed spectacularly this year because the Looking Glass was sold out throughout the festival – certainly not an Edinburgh trend.

On the Monday night, I had tickets for Patrick Monahan, as recommended by a friend. But my expectations weren’t great, which, I think, aided my enjoyment of the gig. His material was certainly weak in places and he went through a number of lulls, but his act was seemingly always revived with competent audience banter and impromptu comments. Following a male audience member into the toilets with the mic and making comments such as ‘I’m sure that’s a treat for the ladies’ offered some of the best parts of his act. It’s this attribute that has led him to become a much loved act, coupled with his unfailing insistence of hugging every audience member before they leave the gig.

As well as boasting a series of one-man shows, Ship Of Fools also held Late & Live sessions, with the traditional four turns and a MC, which I decided to return to the next night.

The days in Leicester certainly do need filling. The schedule before 7.30pm is very sparse and so you are forced to spend the days finding out whether the green peppers will defeat the red tomatoes and watching Dale Winton go ‘wild in the aisles’. That there is little on during the days gives the festival a more mature feel as it distances the student population, with Leicester’s two central universities remain largely unexploited by festival organisers.

Increasingly, it appears if the organisers have attempted to bring a chunk of Edinburgh to the Midlands. This year huge arch banners were erected across the main street, perhaps in an attempt to replicate the Royal Mile. Although in Leicester, between the banners there is no activity except for the odd Big Issue salesman, not even the dreaded painted mine. If they are to bring Edinburgh down south, the comedy needs to start earlier, at 7pm, so allowing later gigs at 9pm and midnight. Whenever I discuss this proposition I’m told there is not the demand and venues would not be full – but every gig I went to this year was sold out, or nearly, so it could be done.

Before my visit to Late & Live, which started at 9.30pm, I tried to organise a gig which, to my disappointment, wasn’t possible. Late & Live however was a good night of comedy with James Mullinger stealing the show - although the others were a little disappointing. With nights like this, I don’t usually check who the four comics are – but I might do next time.

Wednesday was always going to be my highlight of the festival. I had booked my tickets for Mark Watson in November, before I even knew if I had anywhere to stay or indeed if I could get the time off work. Billed as his ‘birthday spectacular’, Can I Talk To Yu Briefly About The Point Of Life? was worth the risk. Watson arrived late after his wife was taken to hospital after a quad bike accident (nothing serious), but he started understandably flustered. Yet his appeal has always been his honestly, and he was instantly accepted by the audience who stuck with him throughout. His openness allowed him to quickly establish a bond with the crowd and he showed that he has become a seasoned professional, delivering a competent set littered with funny anecdotes. As my favourite act on the circuit at the moment, my expectations were high and I did not leave the venue in the least bit deflated.

Stewart Lee was performing on Thursday and had always been an act I had wanted to see, as in my student days he had been a favourite. However my wait must continue, as a ‘sold out’ sign has never seemed so cruel.

Alun Cochrane, an established act on the circuit, was my next port of call. He played the very crowded Bambu bar, a little off the beaten track, but it proved a good venue for comedy. Alun was not a new comic to me as I have seen him in London twice, yet to my satisfaction there was no repetition of gags I had seen previously. Cochrane, like Monahan and Watson, is an instantly likeable guy, and he sometimes comes across as a little wacky and zany and my Mighty Boosh-obsessed friend loved these sections of the gig most. My only criticism was that there didn’t seem to be any climax; he just seemed to stop telling his stories.

Now, in a cruel full circle, work commitments have made me make a hasty return to Kent, forfeiting the last few days of the festival. But my time and money in Leicester was not wasted, as I saw some cracking acts and I did not come away from any gig feeling disappointed. I just wished I could have had more to go to. I’m convinced with the demand in Leicester and the number of quality acts around, the festival could be extended by either adding more nights of the run or more gigs.

As well from the comics I saw, a number of big hitters also played the festival including Jimmy Carr, Dave Spikey, Rich Hall, Josie Long, Michael McIntyre, Jason Byrne, Paul Sinha and Frankie Boyle. Six of those were sold out before I arrived in Leicester, so I’m hoping with that sort of success, the festival will continue to improve next year. Clear your diaries for February 2009.

Published: 15 Feb 2008

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