Review: Just For Laughs London showcase

Comedy Store, January 11, 2009

The annual Just For Laughs Comedy Store gig is always a strange one. Partly an audition for the prestigious Montreal festival, part showcase of yet-to-make-it-big-time acts, it forces relatively established comics to cram their 20 minutes into the seven they would get at the Canadian galas.

Proceedings are made all the weirder by the lack of a compere, ensuing every act comes on to a stone-cold, sometimes slightly bewildered room, often with their name mispronounced by a disembodied voice. Dan Antopolski had a couple of extra syllables added to his surname, as if it needed them, while it was almost disappointing to find that Pat Burtscher wasn’t the former landlady of the Queen Vic.

The unenviable task of opening this night fell to Pippa Evans, in the guise of her bitter country singer Loretta Maine. Starting a showwith a musical act, in character, with no introduction, is a recipe for disaster – so it’s a testament to the persona that she adopts so convincingly that she go the audience on side, with her extracts from the Psycho-Bitch Songbook.

If there’s one criticism, it’s that the lyrics’ themes are too similar – her first was about extracting violent revenge on an ex; the second was about extracting violent revenge on a school bully. But each track is a strong musical number in its own right, with Evans occasionally dropping an exquisite one-liner into the mix. There’s room for a little more inspiration sometimes, but her execution is flawless.

Burtscher was next up, and struggled to fully engage the audience. He’s a relaxed Canadian stand-up – perhaps a little too relaxed, as he seemed singularly unconcerned that his set-ups were hopelessly windy, with far too much flannel before he even approached the punchline. Yes, we all know bawling babies are an annoyance on flights – so the quicker he could get round to his witty solution, the better. Ultimately, his ideas are inventive and funny; but he needs some focus to make the most of them.

Zoe Lyons, in contrast, has pitch-perfect delivery, with all the technical skills, cheery grumpiness and straight-to-the-point premises that have served generations of Northern comics. She hasn’t always got the most distinctive material, but there are some rock-solid gags here, and her effortless likeability gets her a very long way.

Jarred Christmas played a blinder, unafraid to burst out of the wings and immediately start playing with the audience in rather the same way a cat may play with a mouse – all very jolly, but with no doubt who’s in charge, as he unequivocally proved when one heckler dared to question Christmas’s sartorial taste. Though his ribald banter injected much-needed spontaneity into the night, Christmas also had the material to back it up, with hilarious riffs on his surname and the military might of his native New Zealand, both of which took unexpected turns and added further zing to an already effervescent set. Impressive stuff.

At the other end of the energy spectrum, low-key Carl Donnelly proved an entertaining turn with his quirky stories. He has the look and air of a man who bumbles through life, a magnet for slightly strange experiences. Sure enough, his stand-up reflects that perfectly. On the face of it, there’s not much to the mild anecdotes he recounts, but his amiable vulnerability combined with the vivid pictures he conjures up with apparently little effort make him an engaging raconteur who’s reliably funny, even though it can be hard to pinpoint exactly why.

Another change of style in Josh Howie, looking more like Woody Allen than ever. His material, though, is not for the faint at heart, revolving almost entirely around domestic violence, paedophilia, anal sex and rape. Even Frankie Boyle might think ‘Hang on, that’s a bit much’ for the relentlessly hard-edged nature of the set.

Howie’s saved by a great technical expertise in crafting gags, and often you can laugh at the artistry despite the uncomfortable nature of the premise and the bluntness of the payoff. Sometimes, however, he seems to give disconcerting the audience a higher priority than making them laugh – especially in matters of race – at which moments the reaction can only be stony and uneasy.

Opening the second half to an audience who weren’t sure it had begun was the inveterate timewaster, Alun Cochrane, whose subdued approach was perhaps a little too subtle for the more alcohol-soaked punters. But his downplayed charm did eventually win over the room, with a set that focussed on the most inconsequential minutiae of his daydreamer’s thrill-free life. This is a man who not only has a favourite gas hob, but also the desire to share that information with the world. If you want powerful political polemic, go elsewhere, but this unaffected exposure of his petty distractions is quietly delightful.

Miles Jupp is similarly unassuming in his delivery, with a set that is entirely driven by the understandable perception of him as the sort of posh man who could quite happily be given a ‘small island province’ to govern, though probably needs a butler to tie his shoelaces. The persona is fully formed, and Jupp gets to both reinforce it and undermine it in equal measure. Importantly, it allows this real-life liberal to go undercover and report back on the twisted moral compass of Daily-Express reading Middle England with an incisive wit.

Jupp’s underplayed delivery means he’s something of a slow-burner – despite having one of the best opening lines in the business – but his set, even over seven brisk minutes, is undeniably satisfying.

At this point, however, the wheels started coming off the gig – loosened by Holly Walsh then kicked forcefully off the axles by Pappy’s Fun Club, performing under their full name rather than the recently abbreviated Pappy’s.

Walsh’s gentle but smartly crafted gags didn’t quite hit home, hampered by an imperfect delivery. Rather than rise to the occasion, she seemed awed by it, and rushed through her lines, and made next to no effort to make a connection with the audience. It’s a shame, as there is plenty of wryly amusing humour in her quirky writing; but it got lost en route.

Conventional wisdom has it that putting sketch troupes on a stand-up night is a bad thing. In this case, conventional wisdom had it spot-on. The theatrically exaggerated bonhomie and clearly scripted vibe that Pappy’s brought to the stage jarred badly with the laid-back, naturalistic approach of everyone else on the bill – and the audience immediately took a dislike. Brutally exposed, the same sketches that work well in their own show died a death here, seeming like amateur sixth-form revue at its most cringeworthy. They got a chuckle for the callback at the end of their set – not that voiceover man knew it was the end, leading to an embarrassing extended silence – but it was way too little, too late.

Likeable Welshman Elis James, the most inexperienced name on the bill, gamely tried to pull things around, but the result was a no-score draw. His opening with new material about Montreal, culled from Wikipedia, was ill-advised – but it did mean a welcome change when he relaxed into more tried-and tested material. There’s not really much to his tale of an embarrassing experience during a date at the Carmarthen Leisure Centre, but he tells it with the skill of an expert raconteur and a hefty dose of charisma and winning self-deprecation. The short slot does storytelling comedians few favours, however, and James’s turn, especially after Pappy’s death, felt like filler.

Dan Antopolski’s set was also a strange one. His expertise is in creating puns that are hugely inventive, yet dangerously close to Christmas cracker territory, but delivering them in the way of an appealing fool. The first few received a rocky reception, prompting Antopolski to pretty much give up on his Canadian ambitions, going off script an ignoring the strictly mandated time limit.

The irony is, of course, that such a move reversed his fortunes completely. By defying the niceties of the audition part of the gig, and relaxing to reveal more of himself, he endeared himself to the audience, who were suddenly more open to those inspired yet corny one-liners, as well as his tales of being a father to two young daughters. Such a cavalier attitude might end up costing him the Montreal gig – not that a good performance here is any guarantee of a transatlantic booking – but he certainly turned the room around.

Reviewed by Steve Bennett

Published: 12 Jan 2010

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