An act of Rhod

Welsh comic Rhod Gilbert has won the Leicester Comedy Festival's comedian of the year competition - taking home £1,000 and following in the footsteps of previous winners such as Johnny Vegas. He

Over the past few years, the Leicester Comedy Festival's annual new act competition has become a useful barometer of the state of stand-up across Britain.

Contestants are nominated by comedy clubs nationwide, so it's good indication of the standard of the up-and-coming comics most likely to emerge as circuit mainstays over the coming years.

And judging by the best of this year's finalists, the circuit has a lot of fresh talent to look forward to.

However, the opening act, Claire Pollard, turned out to be one of the weaker comics of the night. She seemed right at home on stage, perhaps because of her experience as a teacher, but is let down by material that rarely rises above the mildly amusing.

She simply doesn't do enough to stand out from the crowd, with little distinctive about her manner or observations. A couple of evil-edged one-liners hit the mark, but these were too few to leave a lasting impression.

Second act Greg Davies already has one comedy title under his belt, scooping the Laughing Horse accolade almost a year ago to the day - and on one of his first ever gigs.

Twelve months later and his style has further sharpened - a playful exterior letting him get away with some deceptively cynical material.

He's also clearly a comic who's thought about every word he says, maximising the impact of his routines by picking just the right phrase. The robust act is also nudging away from material dependent on Davies's considerable size - 6ft 8in - though that still proves a fruitful source of set-ups.

Simon Amstell hasn't far to look for his starting points, either, as he's one of the few new acts with his own TV series, hosting Channel 4's Popworld. But this seemingly enviable job provides the spark for some grade-A bitching.

Often the gags aren't particularly clever, but the contemptuous attitude is fun - especially as you know he has to fake empathy for the vacuous stars when he's in his day job.

He's no one-trick pony, though, touching on a range of other topics - including the phrase 'one-trick pony'. Amstell has the confidence and the ability to make it. If he can add more depth to some of the gags, there'll be no stopping him.

Manchester's Greg Cook is also showing plenty of signs of future stardom. This unlikely figure - a lardy, tattooed minicab driver - has even more unlikely material; a heady mix of surreal brainstorms, painful puns and, a real novelty - straightforward pub-style gags that he penned himself.

Cook's a hugely prolific writer, and always delivers something new - not just the odd gag, but often every element of his routine. This can mean the consistency suffers, but thankfully the quality is normally high. Chortle has seen him stronger than tonight - but his silly logic and deliberately baffling theses still won him many fans, and rightly so.

Winning even more acclaim was Marek Larwood, a manic ball of energy belting out a relentlessly quickfire stream of joyous stupidity.

There wasn't an ounce of fat on his constantly surprising set, mixing up genres from silly puns to physical jerks, spoof poetry to offbeat observations.

It all has a wonderfully fresh, original feel to it - a blast of unadulterated comedy. It looked like we had our winner

Certainly the next act did nothing to challenge that. Indeed, nothing to challenge the audience either.

Donna Spence is big, black and proud; and full of the no-bullshit attitude you rarely see outside confrontational daytime TV shows.

Hand on hip, head bobbing from side-to-side she tells her "girlfriends" and her "sistas" just how things are.

The problem is that it's all unsophisticated, unfunny, lower-than-lowest common denominator stuff. She merely mentions her genitals, the fact that she wants a man with a big dick and expects the audience to be in hysterics. How classy is she? For her parting shot she brings out a vibrator. How "outrageous", we all yawn.

She may whoop up the crowd with her Lady Marmalade intro, and her "Large ladies in the house let me hear you say 'yeah'" style-patter but the big attitude is wasted on such little material.

In utter contrast to Spence's loud in-yer-face style, Rhod Gilbert is as deadpan as you get, allowing his comedy to speak volumes.

This quiet Welshman lives in a fantasy world of his own - and he makes it sound so lovely.

His approach is to quietly unravel sprawling shaggy-dog stories about home-made board games and fatal football matches involving his grandmother's pancreas, adding delightful detail and new twists and gags at every turn.

There's a bit of risk that the audience might not buy into his ridiculous premises, as it's sort of act that can deviate from reality, but not from the script. But everybody does tag along, and are well-rewarded for doing so. A truly original voice and
a brilliantly funny one.

In complete contrast, Scotland's contestant Greg McHugh - who described himself as a fat Patrick Kielty - was a mish-mash of styles and aimless observations.

He started off with attempts at topical humour that were neither hard-hitting nor funny; launched into a tediously extended Through The Keyhole routine complete with Loyd Grossman impression that recreated all the tedium of the real show - but with added repetition; and finished off with some generic observations about girls on cosmetics counters wearing too much make-up and pilots having posh voices. His time ran out before he could tell us all about the food on the aircraft

This dull set had all the feel of a first draft, a few half-cocked ideas scrawled on a napkin still waiting for some jokes. Let's hope he finds some.

In the end, the winner and runner-up were clear - and there can only have been a hair's breadth between Larwood and eventual winner Gilbert.

While Cook, Davies and Amstell more than acquitted themselves, the sheer invention and wit of the two who ended on the podium will ensure their comedy futures.

Published: 17 Feb 2003

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