Laughing Horse New Act Final 2007

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

The odds are not stacked in favour of any comedy hopeful entering a new act competition. This year’s Laughing Horse event attracted an astounding 661 entrants, all hoping for a foothold in an industry already overstuffed with too many comics chasing too few gigs.

In such a crowded market no wonder would-be stand-ups so doggedly chase such accolades to get themselves noticed. And as the competition gets tougher, standards get higher – as proved by the fact the final staged by the Laughing Horse at its Wimbledon venue last night was probably the most consistently strong in the seven years it’s been running.

Matt Rudge had the unenviable task of going first, but had the slick energy to get things off to a confident start. He’s cheery and engaging, creating a relaxed, jovial atmosphere – something his background in TV presenting and warm-ups surely taught him. In fact, he is rather too easy-going, as his set-ups meandered amiably towards punchlines rather than hitting them quickly.

The material was breezy, with some especially neat lines about the Christian-America virginity movement, and he mined the easy nostalgia seam with affable reminiscences about the game Guess Who? culminating, with inescapable predictability, with him imagining how a Muslim version would work with veiled women. Generally lightweight stuff all round, but told with upbeat good humour.

Andrew Watts, a finalist in last year’s So You Think You’re Funny, comes on in a cheap suit, looking every inch like a junior executive nervously about to present the annual accounts to the local Rotary Club. He exploits the image of a socially stunted middle-class professional meticulously, referencing Excel spreadsheets, bemoaning the laddishness of stand-ups, complaining of his failures in dating and drawing heavily on a cricketing analogy when it comes to talking about women’s fashion.

The staid, awkward image belies a touch of surprising bad taste and some subtle, inspired ideas, most notably in his exasperation with the etiquette of ending e-mails with kisses. So well is this constructed it can seamlessly soar into a rant invoking the rise of Nazism, which seems entirely logical. The steady pace of the delivery and the robust constituency of this easily identifiable persona add to the feeling this is a strong act who knows what he’s doing.

Icelander Snorri Hergill Kristjansson, in contrast, stumbled over his material, at one point confessing his mind had gone completely blank before recovering and getting the set back on track. Think of jokes about Iceland, and you’ll probably instantly come up with something about the cold and maybe a pun about the frozen food store. Despite this unique and fascinating country being his homeland, Kristjansson takes things no further than that – so it comes as no surprise to find what he has to say about Britain was equally vapid, with a few moans about sport and the vagaries of public transport. A routine about masturbation didn’t auger well – and when it came to the crushingly predictable payoff of how he upset everyone else in Boots at the time, all hope of him saying anything inventive was lost. A wasted opportunity.

When Jack Whitehall started mocking the US immigration cards that ask the dumb question, ‘Are you a terrorist?’, the chances of originality again seemed slim. No one who’s ever seen the card could fail to be amused by the blind optimism that they’ll catch some evil mastermind that way – and that includes all the comics who’ve mentioned it before.

But while he may start with the blindingly obvious – another example being his comment that global warming plunging East Anglia underwater is no great loss - Whitehall’s routines get better the more they progress, becoming increasingly silly and incredulous and demonstrating a brilliant command of the language. He’s a master of the metaphor and able to conjure up just the right, outrageous, image at the right time. And his rape alarm gag was probably the best single joke of the night. Once he loses some of the more obvious material, Whitehall, who was placed second, will be a real force to be reckoned with.

Liz Carr started where Whitehall left off, with some strong, punchy lines about her disability. But despite her bluff Northern charm, she lost her way somewhere mid-set. Talk of her parents shrinking her misfired, possible because it referred to a news story few people were familiar with, and which she didn’t explain clearly enough. And her belief that repetition of the word ‘crip’ brings ever-increasing returns is flawed, especially when she shoehorns it into puns that just don’t work: Turning Tamagotchi into Cripagotchi being a case in point.

But her best lines are ace, mocking us, herself and most of all attitudes to disability – and that was easily enough to earn her a commendation. Early gags about the marathon worked brilliantly, and she cleverly incorporated a callback to an earlier act’s set. If only she showed stronger quality control about all her material, she’d have an unbeatable set.

Fast-talking Rob Alderson brought a lot of energy and charm to his effervescent set. The best of his droll material took a tangential approach to expose how ridiculous sayings such as ‘happy slapping’ and ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ actually are, although other sections were more workaday. He’s a decent enough newer comic, but not special enough to shine against the tough competition elsewhere on the bill.

The likeable Mowten will be remembered for baring his substantial stomach on stage, which he patted and caressed as he made rather ordinary jokes about being bulimic but forgetting to throw up, before reciting a poem to the flab. It all seemed a bit gimmicky, without the strength of material to back it up.

He proved capable of better, such as his a quirky routine about the websites used to show Al Qaeda beheadings. Not the most instantly hilarious of subjects, but Mowten found a clever way to extract the comedy. More interesting, however, was what he didn’t say; mentioning ever-so briefly that he was in a cult and wound up in a mental hospital, but leaving it at that. Something tells me that these experiences will lead to much better material than exposing his beer gut ever will…

Grainne Maguire hails from Navan, the Irish town that has already produced Tommy Tiernan and Dylan Moran – but she’s her work cut out to get to their level. She started weakly with a bit about her first name, which isn’t really of interest to anyone but herself, before moving on to more fertile ground with the poor chat-up techniques of the average Irishman. There are a couple of nice observations at the heart of this, but it needs to be punchier.

The second half of her set was taken up by imagining Emily Bronte the morning after a drunken night out; a routine that was too contrived and too long – although again contained a nice line or two. Maguire’s a sweet enough stage presence, and can employ understatement with the dry mastery of a Father Ted script, but she’s not yet moulded her abilities into a reliable set.

Joe K is an expert comedy technician. Every pause is perfect, every phrase given just the right emphasis. But for all his storytelling skill, and ability to maintain a comic momentum, his set just didn’t seem all that funny. The anecdote of a run-in with a midget on a Tube train didn’t resonate, and a couple of other lines were obvious, if well told. He’s got the skill to get laughs, but they seem to be more out of reflex than because the material is inherently hilarious.

Stuart Black’s delivery is quite the opposite, but just as effective. He appears distracted, half-drunk, possibly, as he nonchalantly moans about things that annoy him as if they’ve just staggered into his addled mind. It’s a naturalistic stance of impotent, half-arsed exasperation that instantly engages with the audience. Some of the material could be tighter without losing that carefree style, but his best routines – and one involving dogs and biscuits stands out – are something special. Enough, certainly, to secure him the third place.

Joanne Lau addresses us in broken English, initially as if she was a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. But her ethnicity doesn’t really define her comedy, aside for one gag when she pretends to be Japanese and ditzy to confuse dim Westerners who don’t know the difference. But her routine is something of a jumble, sometimes whimsical with so-so puns elevated into routines of their own, but sometimes hard-edged and aggressive.

It’s hard to know who she is, or what she’s about, which is always an obstacle in comedy. And however good some of her lines are (one disgusting one about a smelly toilet being by far the best) they are never going to be shown to best advantage until they come from a consistent persona.

Twelfth act out of 12, and thankfully the room still had some energy for Daniel Rigby, even though he started wobbly, with a badly-received quip about the backdrop. But once he hit his material, things took a definite upwards swing.

He has the air of a man trying to make a serious point, but forever allowing his mind to wander on to other, more surreal things. First up, he takes the anti-crime posters reminding people to guard their belongings and spin it into a sharp routine about paranoia and the warped mentality of blaming the victim – a message only undermined by his unnecessary introduction of the odd character of PC Haddock-Face.

But both sides of his act work together wonderfully as he starts talking about rubbish, only to wind up on a sublime and surreal diversion about centaurs, who he portrays as easily-embarrassed middle-class people feeling awkward at dinner parties and other social occasions. It was probably this splendid routine alone that secured him first place.

He runs a commentary on his own gags, plays around a little with the expectations of stand-up, and all the while sounds like a pro-in-waiting. Whether he be talking about news reports of Ariel Sharon on his deathbed, or BAE’s ‘environmentally friendly’ weapons, he finds the funny and exploits it efficiently.

At the last minute, the final provided its winner – and yet another potential headliner for that overcrowded comedy circuit. Even if there are 660 other hopefuls already biting at his heels.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
May 21, 2007

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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