The Danish invasion

Steve Bennett reviews two shows at the Leicester comedy festival

Who knew the East Midlands had such demand for Danish comedians? There’s not one but two shows at the Leicester Comedy Festival comprising only comics from the Nordic nation’s relatively new stand-up scene. That said, the Sunday-night audiences in this intimate basement bar were relatively sparse, so perhaps the appeal was over-estimated.

The first show had the far-from catchy title Comedians Who Happen To Speak English, so perhaps something was lost in translation. ‘We are not what you expect,’ came the bold promise from Valdemar Pustelnik, as he introduced the show – though quite what anyone’s stereotype of a Danish comedian might be, beyond Sandi Toksvig, is less clear. Horned viking hats, perhaps?

Performing in a second language tripped up opening act Mikkel Rask a couple of times – saying ‘dark voice’ instead of ‘deep voice’ for instance, eroded the potency of his punchline. But more often it was his own lack of experience that floored him, being visibly uncomfortable with the small room and the muted responses, leaving awkward pauses that went unfilled with laughter, then pointing out the fact.

With a coal-black sense of humour, Rask has some quality lines, but also plenty of more straightforward routines that don’t escape cliché - for example the throwing of a wreath at a funeral, like a wedding; or alternative suggestions of what Martin Luther King’s dream might have been. The set generally points to a newish comic who doesn’t yet know any better – but he could find an guiltily enjoyable dark voice of his own with more gig-miles under his belt.

Anders Grau unravels long, meandering scenarios from weak premises in a dry, deliberate monotone. About half the room went along for the ride and clearly enjoyed the fantasy, while the other half - myself included – sat bored rigid. There is a smattering of good jokes and ideas here, but if you’re not engaged by the rambling monologues they are but drops of comic hydration in a vast desert of dull.

In his own set, Pustelnik proved the strongest comedian of the trio. He’s got a well-constructed persona of the blundering idiot, underlined with a lively-paced routine cataloguing various examples of ‘I’m the sort of guy who...’ at the start of his spirited and quirky set. One drawback is that a fair bit of his material seems coloured by others, though not a direct rip-off. His resigned thoughts on a long-term relationship could have come from Dylan Moran; his anthropomorphising of sheep with limited memories could have come from Eddie Izzard; and his bit on Facebook is, to use a much lower-profile example, almost identical to last year’s Chortle student winner Kwame Asante. Yet whatever his influences, he mixes up the ingredients to his own recipe, and the fast and fluid set garners the laughs and shows why he’s the headliner.

Half an hour later, and the second wave of comic invaders come in the Great Danes showcase in the same room.

The opener here, Mikkel Malmberg, seeks to be somewhere between Demetri Martin and Reggie Watts. He certainly has a few clever offbeat one-liners, but then gets obsessed with the flaws inherent in the Disney version of the Robin Hood story, which no one in the audience seems to share. That section’s concluded with one of two songs he lays down using the sampler/looping machine which is becoming almost as prevalent as a stand-up prop as the ukulele. But Malmberg, like so many others, can only use it a novelty, not as a tool to make funny. More focus on the jokes, in which he seems promising, and less on the extended flights of fancy and musical arsing about would strengthen his hand.

Next, a Dane who is already establishing herself in the ‘up-and-coming’ division of the British comedy circuit, Sofie Hagen. The majority of her set is a rallying cry for ‘Fat Pride’, with jokes about her size – and the men who are drawn to it – that are refreshingly celebratory, rather than self-deprecatory. They may be drawn from the same ideas of gluttony and slothfulness that could be used against her, but she undermines them cheerfully.

The second half of her set is less appealing, thanks to an extended segment where she imagines the microphone as a penis, as so many others have done before, which is pretty cheap. And a joke about rape joke starts off well, but she pushes into an area that’s more uncomfortable than funny. Nevertheless, there’s some assured stuff here.

Simon Talbot doesn’t sound like a Danish name; and he doesn’t sound like a Dane either – both thanks to his Irish father. Whether his performance skills are inherited or leaned, he certainly acts the part of a comedian who knows exactly what he’s doing, which gives the audience confidence in his ability, too. Even in this small room, he has a nervy energy that scintillates his material.

The jumping-off points for his routines are often rather predictable – his defining segment, for example, is on the pretentiousness of perfume ads – but he wrings out every drop of funny from it, with his own ideas mixed in with the predictable. The result is strong, even though, like many of the other comedians tonight, he could do with stretching himself a little more. The Danish circuit clearly isn’t as competitive as Britain’s, which forever pushes comedians into new areas, but it’s not a huge leap of imagination to see at least a couple of these acts coming over here and stealing our comedians’ jobs...

Published: 18 Feb 2013

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