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Review: BBC New Comedy Final 2004

Though relegated from TV to radio, and digital radio at that, this year’s BBC New Comedy final still offered one of the more consistently strong line-ups of any of the burgeoning number of new act competitions.

Opener David Nicholls, a lanky adopted Welshman, turned out to be the weakest link, but even then there was no yawning gulf between him and the pack, just the narrowest of margins.

Yet he would have had every reason to struggle. In a contest open to acts performing for up to three years, he won his place after fewer than a dozens gigs, and by the final had only doubled that meagre figure.

In some respects, his inexperience showed: most noticeably in his stretching of ideas, repeating the same basic joke until it wore thin. But those ideas were great ones, whether it be the inappropriate use of Christmas cards or his own reworking of the Dirty Dozen, and given an original, offbeat spin.

You would also never know from his natural demeanour in front of a potentially intimidating Comedy Store audience that he was such a rookie - even if the delivery didn’t pack a punch, it was still relaxed and assured. He, as with all on the bill tonight, was an act with a certain comedy future.

Next up was, Times obituary writer Liam Mullone - who may have hair that’s dangerously close to Flock Of Seagulls, but his material is in much better shape.

As befits a journalist, he mixes a sharp cynicism with devious wordplay, with a few intelligent references thrown into the impressive mix. He manages to achieve this through a slightly otherworldly persona, wandering through life in a befuddled, but articulate, daze. A strong set, that was unlucky not to be placed on the night.

Sometime chorister James Sherwood, right, also combined intelligent material with a sharp wit.  A cool, assured performer, his broadly topical material, taken from the headlines of the past six months or so, was astutely observed and smartly subverted, and you can certainly see him being in demand from news-based comedy shows for some time yet. Perhaps the BBC judge on the panel agreed, head of radio entertainment John Pidgeon, as Sherwood’s wry set earned him a runners-up gong.

Absurdist Danielle Ward was, rightfully, the other runner-up with a set that seemingly drew its inspiration from some freak show in her mind, all conjoined twins and the god-offending hybrid of human and chimpanzee.

Yet for all the surrealism such darkly offbeat subjects might throw up, Ward skilfully managed to keep her set grounded, with one foot, at least, in reality. To make such bizarre topics accessible, and relatively inoffensive, was a tough task she proved more than capable of.

Deadpan Irishman Jarlath Regan didn’t quite get the measure of the room, and although charming was just too quiet and unenthused to make an impact. His adept wordplay, and misplaced logic offers a witty, entertaining diversion; just not enough to land him a mention from the judges, nor make a particularly lasting impression on the mind.

Last up was the ultimate winner, Andrew Lawrence - and a good job, too, since he would have been an impossible act to follow. With a croaky, guttural voice oozing desperation, misery and possibly psychosis, he caterwauled his way through a manic tale of childhood depression and matricide.

He’s the Leonard Cohen of comedy, but brilliantly funny with it – thanks mainly to his well-defined, original character and nanosecond-perfect timing, Lawrence has repeatedly proved himself a show-stopping ten minute act with a wide repertoire, and if he can extend his sets without that grating Charlie Drake voice driving audiences to distraction – and there is every sign he can – Lawrence will be big.

He’s so strong he possibly didn’t need the BBC title to springboard his career, but £2,000 and a helping hand into the world of radio is never going to go amiss. And he certainly deserved every penny.

Published: 14 Dec 2004

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