Piccadilly Circus New Act Of The Year 2011

Final reviewed by Steve Bennett

The gap between Christmas and New Year is usually seen as a wasteland for comedy. But London's West End is so busy that even the Angus Steak House has had to put out the velvet rope to deal with the queues, making a sub-par meat purveyor look like the most exclusive of nightclubs .

So it seems the Piccadilly Comedy Club's decision to hold the final of its new act competition on New Year’s Eve Eve wasn't as odd as it may first appear. It isn't one of the more high-profile talent hunts – top prize is a modest £250 – but it still attracted a decent quality of finalists.

Drawn first was substitute teacher Paul Revill, who has the likability and charm needed of an opener to assure the audience they are in safe hands. But beyond the bluff charisma, he can only offer the most unexceptional material, almost exclusively based around unusual days at school. Cue lots of descriptions of sexual health lessons and plenty of paedophile references from a man who spends his day with 14-year-olds. He makes the best of such mediocre fare, but it's very pedestrian, with no strong stage persona or gags by which to remember this resolutely average act.

Andrea Hubert has made the final of several new act competitions of late, and always seems to come away the bridesmaid, never the bride. True to form, it was to be that way tonight, too, as she took silver yet again. Though never taking the crown, such consistent high placing augers well for the future, as she certainly has both a compelling persona and a keen writing skill. Being a gangly 6ft 2in sets her aside as an outsider, but not so much as her archly cynical attitude. She portrays herself as an awkward loser, eking out an existence in one of London's less salubrious districts, but her slick, fluid set is rich with inventive, sarcastic gags all hung around an intriguing personality. It's a very robust basis for a comedy career.

Chris Norton Walker has an equally strong stage presence, teasing the audience even before he reaches the microphone. He's a big guy and plays up to that, with a confrontational, if tongue-in-cheek, attitude as he plays elements of the crowd against each other and working from the slightest response. It’s a fun, teasing way of keeping the audience on their toes, but sometimes backfires – as he got stuck in a Cul-De-Sac demanding to know what one punter had muttered, but never receiving an answer. It’s not his only shortcoming, as his jokes are often predictable and flat. But it’s a nice style, let’s hope the material is to follow.

On the face of it Sam Wong has some very cliched set-ups – with material about self-service supermarket check-outs (the ‘airline food’ gags of the 2010s) and ‘what’s the deal with people telling you the weight of their babies?’ His initial gambit on such topics is often what’s to be expected, but then he goes the extra step in putting an unexpected tag on the end. Elsewhere there are some great one-liners, as well as some truly corny ones, but this baby-faced performer has the chutzpah to roll with the groans as well as the genuine laughs. When he pulls out the ukulele, the instrument spreading across the comedy circuit like a virus, again the expectations sink – yet again he gets the laughs despite his singing limitations. His set was clearly a mixed bag, but the peaks were high and he kept the laughs coming whatever his limitations. He took the prize on the night – and deserved it – though there’s still plenty of room to hone his routine from this cheerily funny starting point.

Wong’s playful energy was a hard act to follow, yet Canadian Ryan Cull grabbed the moose by the horns. A relatively recent immigrant, he has the confidence of slickness you would expect from an experienced North American pro... but also the downside of sounding like a lot of other experienced North American pros. Nonetheless, that sharp style is a loyal servant of the punchline, and almost every sentence ends with a joke. The content plays up his unsuccessful life in a grotty London flatshare, Britain’s pathetic response to snow compared to his homeland, and ‘sexting’. There are some shining gags in here – though a chunk that are more ordinary, too – and he’s clearly a comic who knows what he’s doing, even if a flick more distinctiveness would be welcome.

This was my third time of seeing Pete Beckley in a month – every one of them a new act final, which has to say something for his prospects. A Wolverine looky-likey, he plays up the role of the creepy weirdo, like a bewhiskered English Emo Philips. It’s not quite so surprising his writing’s not up to the American’s elite standard, and often the twist in his lines are just irrationally stupid rather than having any twisted internal logic. But he sustains a couple of good running jokes, his unique appearance and strangulated delivery stick in the mind, and some gags show flashes of inventiveness – all of which give him firm foundations on which to build.

Cheryl Byrne’s got plenty to say, mainly drawn from her personal experiences of being a recovering alcoholic. Yet she hasn’t yet got the skills to tell it effectively, the result being a rather gushy, jumbled stream of stories, none of which quite gel properly. Her inexperience certainly shows when she starts babbling to her day-job boss who’s in the room, and introducing a flash card she doesn’t clearly explain. Yet her openness and excited chattiness give this no-nonsense Essex girl an innate likeability, which is a huge asset. More stage time could result in that being put to so much better effect.

Finally Barnaby Slater, a comic with a careful, measured delivery who seems more intent on troubling the audience than making them chuckle, with his bleak jokes about abortion and paedophilia drawing groans of disgust and nervous laughter in equal measure. When they are drawn from his real-life confessions, the uncomfortable journey seems justified, but he mixes this with the entirely gratuitous. And it’s perhaps telling that the most successful part of his set is based around a relatively innocuous Facebook prank. But generally he’s stuck between two approaches: too cynical to be likeable, but not cynical enough to be viciously cutting.

Published: 1 Jan 2012

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