BBC London Children in Need benefit

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Amid all the high-profile fundraising comedy spectaculars, one night has been a low-key, but regular, fixture in the comedy calendar for many years, known only to listeners to BBC London. The station’s annual Children In Need gala at the Shepherds Bush Empire nonetheless attracts a strong line-up, hundreds of punters and thousands of pounds – and last night was no exception.

It was compered by Jason Wood, in a full camp-light-entertainment mode that fitted perfectly the gig’s variety-hall sensibilities, even if his uncanny impressions of old pop divas can be self-indulgent after the first couple have proved the undeniable power of his voice.

For alongside the stand-ups were a few more unlikely bookings, starting with the most unexpected of the lot: a two-man theatre company who attracted some critical attention at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Big Wow deftly performed a highly physical sketch about the monotony and futility of a 9-5 job, which impressed with its pace, timing and comic exaggeration – not to mention the versatility of Tim Lynskey, who plays everybody encountered by Mark Rutter’s office drone, Keith. Gently witty, with the occasional laugh-aloud sight gag, this was a teasing appetiser rather than a laugh feast.

More sketches next, with the Penny Dreadfuls, another critical Edinburgh hit thanks to their inspired idea of theming all their work around the Victorian era, meaning a set full of full of florid language, gentlemen explorers and the excitement associated with the steam-driven dawn of the scientific age. It’s the sort of high-concept idea that should instantly appeal to commissioning editors – and they certainly deserved to be snapped up by radio soon, given that they’ve got the material to match their invention: silly, literate and exuberantly performed, especially when it came to prancing around the stage naked, to the shocked delight of the audience. But it was artistically valid, honest.

Bare flesh was a vital component of Phil Nichol’s award-winning Edinburgh show; but tonight he kept himself under wraps – notwithstanding a vast expanse of butt cleavage as he stomped around, baring his midriff and grunting in his best Quasimodo drawl: ‘I’m pretty.’ Just another typical bit of OTT characterisation, performed by this unstoppable Canadian ball of energy with his usual unabashed gusto. His whole set – from tales of outrageous fetish bars to the ever-popular Only Gay Eskimo – was a typically powerful, silly, hilarious display that brought the house down. It was a powerhouse performance that couldn’t be topped all night, not even by Al Murray.

After a break to calm everyone down, Shappi Khorsandi struggled to make a big impression, her sweet-but-cheeky girlish charm not mustering the energy to engage such a big room. Her witty material about growing up as an Iranian in England garnered giggles, although some of the smart gags would really be worthy of more.

Lack of impact is not a problem Al Murray has ever suffered. His Pub Landlord got a reception as warm as his beer when he strode on, sloshing most of his foaming pint over the front row, as usual. The reaction suggested he was the reason most people were here, so it was odd that he appeared midway through the night, rather than headlining.

Most people must know the Guv’nor’s conservative, narrow-minded, ill-informed shtick by now, which is a strength as well as a weakness. It means he can get laughs from what he doesn’t say, as the audience laughing by simply imagining the responses to a French name or a boy being accompanied to the theatre by man who’s ‘not his dad’, without Murray needing to say it. The downside is there are few surprises, certainly within the limitations of a shorter set. However, Murray’s still unmatchable at bantering, and it’s always a pleasure to drink in his company.

An odd act to close this section. Billed as ‘an amazing, never-seen-before experience, Cyberstein is an imposing 9ft android, straight from the set of Robocop, that moves convincingly to Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra tracks, interspersed with random snippets of movie dialogue.

Odd, yes. A triumph of engineering, certainly. But hard to make out through all the dry ice fogging the stage and as entertaining as… well, a heap of metal, circuit boards and hydraulics. The day of the robocomic is still a long way off...

In part three, Lucy Porter suffered a similar fate to Khorsandi, gently tickling the audience with tales of her life, rather than fully grabbing their undivided attention. Both are very similar in delivery, with an open, chatty style which suits more intimate spaces rather than a 1,300-seater theatre.

The crowd didn’t even fully buy into Tim Vine’s brand of tongue-in-cheek cheesiness, and he too didn’t quite hit his stride. People were only starting to succumb to the relentless barrage of his gags and puns by the time he came offstage. The jokes themselves, many of them new, were in his well-established style – you think they ought to be groaners, but are actually so well put-together you laugh at their economy, audacity and sheer unexpectedness. He always jokes that he’ll go on for hours, as if it were a threat rather than a promise – but in this case a longer set would have been welcome as we were only just warming to him.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
November 2006

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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