The year when no gig was normal... | Chortle editor Steve Bennett compiles his most memorable shows of 2020 © Carla Speight

The year when no gig was normal...

Chortle editor Steve Bennett compiles his most memorable shows of 2020

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone… Joni Mitchell sure got that right.

With the comedy industry all-but shut down in 2020, every gig staged against the odds became precious. In part, that’s because when gathering people together in clubs or theatres became outlawed, promoters got creative in their staging, creating intrinsically more memorable experiences.

But more significantly, the new rarity of being able to share a laugh as part of the ad-hoc community that is an audience heightened a sense of connection and occasion that was missing for so much of this locked-down year.

So, unlikely as it may once have seemed, it has still been possible to put together a list of highlights for this most difficult of years. Here, then, is my annual, and entirely personal, list of the top ten most memorable gigs of the year. Even if ‘memorable’ is so largely defined by the circumstances we might rather forget…

Bubbling under

The two Chortle Comedy Book Festivals, illustrating how much things changed. The first was in the British Library in January, a few hundred people in one place in one day listening to engaging, amusing talks from the likes of Adam Kay, Jenny Eclair and Mark Thomas. Fast-forward to November, and it’s 20 events across a week, many Zoomed from comics’ homes, others broadcast live from the Bill Murray pub in front of an audience of three - myself and a couple of production crew from streaming service NextUp. But that was certainly memorable in its own way, with notable sessions such as Jon Richardson chatting to pal Matt Forde; Alex Horne and Tim Key in conversation, Frank Skinner enthusing about poetry and brilliant contributions from the likes of Adam Buxton, Richard Herring and Mark Watson.

And the Greenwich Comedy Festival, the normal giant marquee replaced by a vast field of chairs, in pairs and two metres away from the next. It was a bitterly cold late September night, but fine work from Josh Widdecombe, Lou Sanders, Sindhu Vee and compere John Robins made us forget that.

10. David Baddiel: Trolls Not The Dolls,  New Victoria Theatre, Woking, February

Uniquely on this year’s list, an entirely normal, pre-pandemic theatre gig. David Baddiel took reading out online criticism to a new level, using heckler-style comebacks as a cover to consider the nature of comedy and offence – and ultimately a love letter for playful banter that Twitter could facilitate, but too often doesn’t. Click here for the review. More dates are planned for 2021.

9. The Comeback, Noel Coward Theatre, London, December

Staged in the brief respite between theatre closures, at the end of this year, Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen, also known as double act The Pin,  brought this version of their 2018 Edinburgh Fringe show to the West End.

The raucous over-the-top slapstick farce - which definitely required a suspension of disbelief - was staged with a socially-distanced audience, including a different guest star plucked from its ranks each night. London theatres went dark again the day after I saw this, but producers have vowed to resume the run as soon as possible.

Click here for the full review.

8. Picnic At The Castle, Windsor Castle, September

One of the late summer’s more prestigious outdoor gigs was staged in the spectacular setting of Warwick Castle, each bubble given a mini-pagoda to watch the show and consume their gourmet hog roasts or veggie burgers.

Like so many this year, it was a strange gig - the spacing of the audience was a big barrier to getting laughs to spread, and one table still managed to be disruptive. But the comics put on a sterling show, with a coincidental running theme focus on national identity and racism from stand-ups  Michael Odewale, Olga Koch and Phil Wang – plus some entertaining musical/character work from Will Hislop and Barney Fishwick as Scandi pop duo Fjord.

Click here for the full review.

7. Funny Women Final, Comedy Store, London, September

The Comedy Store always has a unique place for any fan or exponent of stand-up, and descending its familiar stairs for the first time in months was a special feeling. Even if the 400 or so seats were almost all empty, with just a handful of industry judges in the room, and the real audience watching the gig, compered by Jayde Adams, from home.

Downbeat Izzy Askwith took the title ahead of oddball Eryn Tett in second and assured Mary O’Connell in third… and I thought the upbeat Naomi Cooper deserved some kudos too. Click here for the full review.

6. Suzi Ruffell: Stand Up The O2, London, September

O2 roof

Even in this easily-offended world, few comedy gigs start with a safety lecture. But this is not about the safety of your feelings: when you’re going to ascend the outside of one of London’s landmarks, such a briefing is a necessity.

After making the steep climb, the intrepid were treated to an entertaining stand-up set from Suzi Ruffell, good enough to divert our attention away from the spectacular view. Click here for the full review.

5. Help Save Live Comedy, Clapham Grand, London, August

I’d normally go to more than 120 comedy shows in August. This year, with no Edinburgh Fringe, it was just the two.

The Clapham Grand had hosted a streamed fundraising gig during lockdown, and as soon as the restrictions eased it allowed a limited audience in for the second, co-hosted by the ever-flamboyant Jayde Adams and Al Murray, in Pub Landlord guise, albeit with a lockdown hairstyle far from his usual shaved look.

A mammoth three-hour bill included video contributions from the likes of Joe Lycett, Nish Kumar and Aisling Bea, and live performances from livewire Mawaan Rizwan, droll Dane Baptiste, world-weary Kerry Godliman and an emotional Shappi Khorsandi, among many others.

Click here for the full review.

4. Punting Comedy, Oxford, August

Punts

The setting for my other August comedy gig was more idyllic than most sweaty Fringe venues: the river Isis in Oxford, with the audience on punts and scattered on the banks beneath a cloudless summer sky. Even a family of ducks passed by mid-gig, right on cue, as Sara Barron, Morgan Rees, Chelsea Birkby, and MC Harry Houseman, of the local Jericho Comedy Club, entertained. Click here for the full review.

3. Mark Watson's Carpool Comedy, Bath Racecourse, July

Watson on stage at drive-in

It was the summer of drive-in gigs, even if the experiment is unlikely to graduate into a long-term feature of the comedy circuit. With audiences isolated in their car-sized bubbles, the sense of shared experience is lost, while comedians found it hard to time gags without the feedback of laughter. A honking of horns or - worse - a flick of the windscreen wipers in built-up areas where noise was banned just isn’t the same.

This gig - which featured Ed Bryne, Jess Fostekew Shappi Khorsandi and compere Mark Watson was also hit by rain, obscuring the figures even on the big screen. Yet because of its oddity, it was a memorable experience. A touch of the Dunkirk spirit, perhaps, of making a benefit of calamity. And Watson, who fronted a series of these gigs across the country, is a master of harnessing the positivity of chaos, recognising what a ridiculous situation this was, but turning it into an asset, making intrepid pioneers of us all.

Click here for the full review.

2. BBC Stand Up For Live Comedy, Vinegar Yard, London, September

The spark in the air of this gig, the first TV recording of any live comedy post-pandemic, didn’t quite come through on screen. But it was a delightful evening in an open-air space, flanked by craft beer bars and high-end food trucks, and elegantly draped with fairy lights, exuding all the charm of a boutique festival. Warm-up Mark Olver did some fine crowd work through all the stops and starts of the evening, hosted on TV by Jamali Maddix, sharing his indiscrete stories. Force-of-nature Helen Bauer, smartly observant Michael Odewale and offbeat  Eleanor Tiernan made up the rest of the bill. Click here for the full review.

1. Barbara Nice, Frog & Bucket, Manchester, July

With the UK still within the toughest days of lockdown, this - the first gig anywhere in the country for 18 weeks - almost felt like an illicit, Prohibition-busting activity. Albeit one that adhered to the letter of the law in every way. The Frog and Bucket was pioneering how a socially distanced comedy club might run as we emerged from the strictest restrictions, with government officials learning from this trial gig. For the audience, it was a first glimpse of the freedom we once took for granted - and it was intoxicating.

The line-up comprised deadpan Shazia Mirza, cheerily relatable Sian Davies and promising newcomer Ola Labib. But it was the ebullient joy of headliner Barbara Nice who was just the shot in the arm we needed… at least metaphorically. Unflaggingly positive and gregarious, she’s a super-spreader of good cheer, uniting the audience in silly games and cheeky in-jokes. What a euphoric return to live comedy… it’s just a pity that the experiment was so short-lived, with Manchester plunged into a high tier just days later.

Roll on 2021 and an end to all this!

Click here for the full review.

• The top 10 gigs of 2019

Published: 31 Dec 2020

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