Leicester Comedy Festival: London preview show

Review by Steve Bennett

In its home town, the Leicester Comedy Festival Preview show is one of the highlights of the comedy calendar, filling the 2,000-plus capacity De Montfort Hall every year.

But in London, it is a harder sell, and unfortunately, despite a couple of decent turns, this felt rather more like just another mid-level Thursday night gig than a prestigious gala showcase.

After Arthur Smith's usual affable, if no-frills, intro, the show got off to a faltering start, thanks to an atypically lacklustre Naz Osmanaglou. Normally spirited, he squandered his first couple of minutes idly asking after the wellbeing of various audience members to no comic avail. It eventually emerges that he's seeking an alpha-male so he can go into his alpha-male 'bit', but it was entirely unnecessary blether. The actual content - an exaggerated consideration of Bear Grylls' ruggedness - is his trademark routine, and scored reasonably well, even if the performance was surprisingly underpowered.

Material was the problem for eager sketch group Dog-Eared Collective, who failed to do anything with the age-old management advice of giving criticism sandwiched between praise, other than simply execute it with the minimum of twist. The idea of an Italian version of Top Gear, testing out gondolas and Popemobiles, was stronger, although the inventive flame petered out until it became little more than comedy accents, sounding like a pale imitation of the Fast Show’s Channel 9.

Much-tipped Luke Benson was equally patchy, getting off to a strong start with his material about his 6ft 7in height making him an actual giant, his Geordie lilt giving the whimsical material a helping hand. But when he spoke about being a genuine victim of harassment – a premise full of promise – things got less assured. It would take a comic genius to make anything from the tortured starting point ‘better to be stalked by a cabbie than cabbed by a stalker’, and Benson couldn’t come good.

Finally John Kearns, with the sort of weird, room-splitting lunacy that’s certain to get talked about, even if bewilderment is the result, rather than laughs. His twisted duet with a stuffed robin, and aggressively shambolic attack on Paul McCartney’s Jet were much more Funny Peculiar than funny ha-ha. A throwback to the days of alternative cabaret, this is certainly a change from the parade of affable twentysomethings observing things; even if the oddness hasn’t yet got the sense of purpose – however misplaced – that will really make the set zing. Still, his unwavering commitment to the absurd cannot be doubted in such a forceful performance.

The second half of the show was on much firmer footing. It opened with Vikki Stone, who once starred in a Yakult advert with Arthur Smith, even though they had never met before tonight. She played the chip-eating protagonist; Smith her turbulent stomach – an odd situation that powered their banter.

She opened her set proper with the low-aiming routine about condoms and the song about her psychotic Phillip Schofield obsession which we didn’t rate at the Leicester preview last week – although the showmanship carries the day. Infinitely more inventive is her love song as expressed through the music of Jurassic Park composer John Williams, which had some of the crowd swaying joyfully.

As far as comic songs go, it doesn’t get much better than Pat Cahill’s rap about a tumour-riddled dog that ‘is not in any immediate pain’. It’s an unlikely subject for comedy – which only makes it all the funnier – while Cahill is careful to play up the absurdity of the situation without being cruel. This was preceded by a similarly imaginative slice of leftfield stand-up, a delightful mix of the dry and surreal, which nonetheless remains rooted in a warped reality.

Finally, Paul Sinha with a 20-minute extract from the show he debuted last Edinburgh, based largely around the fallout from his chance encounter with Jim Davidson at the Comedy Store – though sharing a TV panel with the object of his lust gets a good showing, too.

This is a meticulous structured and carefully written piece of stand-up storytelling, with all component parts perfectly engineered to hold their place in the whole. There are some brilliant line in it, too – and, yes, there could be more, but the locomotive of strong narrative and intelligent comment holds the audience throughout a richly satisfying set.

Published: 20 Jan 2012

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