Hackney Empire New Act Final 2008

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

This must be the most passionately attended New Act final of the many throughout the year, filling the gorgeous crimson and gold Hackney Empire to the rafters with supporters of the 16 finalists as well as regular Empire-goers.

It would be unthinkable to have the night without Arthur Smith’s throaty compering and he was positive, hardworking and mixed spontaneity with some well matured routines. Arthur without old jokes would like Hamlet without the prince. And what about the acts? There were some original talents and voices, some skilled performers and some others over whom it would be kindest to draw a veil.

First out of the traps, taking the brave decision to go unmiked, were the Brothers Gribble, capering down from the back of the auditorium playing the toff and cockney straight out of a notion of what music hall once was. It was surely never that bad. Heckling ensued almost immediately and, stuck in the double act format, they were unable to address it. Possibly ex drama school boys, they found out the hard way that comedy isn’t as easy as it looks, and were lucky that only a momentary stunned silence greeted one of their more offensively un-PC period gags.

Moving on, Frank Sanazi, Hitler in a tuxedo, gave a polished singing performance, changing the words to a couple of Sinatra standards. Ho hum. He overran unforgivably, but you can’t stop dead mid-song. There was some shocked hilarity initially, but that gave way to mild irritation whilst we waited for the chorus of ‘Strangers On My Flight’ to die away.

The appearance of chirpy Geordie Christian Steel, skating on in his Heelys and comedy hair at least heralded some straight stand-up, even if he stuck firmly to dick jokes, Geordie stereotypes (they don’t feel the cold, you know) and rape. His material was base, but he was chipper enough and if he moved out of the Viagra and masturbation area, he might have the makings of an entertainer.

Following various levels of offensiveness for the first three acts, Andi Osho had only to smile at the audience and look confident for them to be ready to eat out of her hand before she spoke. Using local knowledge and some familiar scenarios, she was warmly engaging and amusing and was received rapturously just for playing nicely, which scored herself a third place.

Gerry Howell, up next, fizzed with some truly original ideas and is clearly one to watch. Present performance is too manic and exhausting, but he scattered his mad wordplay and inventiveness with a couple of great gags that anyone would be proud to claim as their own. He should be incubated to allow the ideas to develop, rather than just showcasing his high-energy performance.

Rachel Boxall was the antithesis to the preceding agitation, with a wonderfully measured and calm performance. A decent mimic of the south London staff and pupils from the school where she works, she gave up some likeable character comedy, comfortably amusing without threatening to take the Roof off.

The eventual winner, Steve Weiner (pictured) came next, with a highly polished and energetic act, but the energy was completely focused, without a redundant word or gesture. Great voice work, imitating the Phones 4 U sales patter and getting laughs from the format of reciting a tech spec at high speed in a daft accent. He packed a lot of laughs into five minutes, without going for the lowest common denominator. A couple of routines show that he has been an acute observer of comedy and may have unconsciously incorporated an idea or phrasing, but there are few who could deny outside influences on their performance.

Now we were nearly at the interval, and with audience energy visibly sliding, Imran Yusuf made up for it with an explosive performance, using the whole stage, prowling, striding, stretching his long, spare frame to compel the attention. With a delivery like gunfire, and a gaze that raked the auditorium like a lighthouse beam, I thought he might have been placed for dynamism alone, never mind the harsh-voiced comedy that embraced terrorism, dinosaur impressions and a demolition of US hypocrisy. Not a comfortable viewing, but definitely exhilarating.

Vicky Stone, a glamorous chanteuse with a ukelele closed the first half changing the words to Abba songs and belting them out rather well.

After nine turns in the first section, we regrouped and started off again, opening with a double act again. The pompously named The Heresy Project were heckled mercilessly by a drunk man at the back of the stalls plaintively reiterating ‘You’re not funny! You’re shit’ and he was right on the money. The rest of the audience were silent or murmuring assent with pissed bloke. Trying to milk humour from repetition and assertion, these guys were arrogant and genuinely unlikeable, like two moody, clever-dick adolescents past their sell by date. No redeeming features there.

The next act,Canadian Pat Burtscher would have been entitled to punch them out for creating such a hostile and irritable atmosphere in the room and for getting the heckler into his stride. He squandered his first minute tearing about the stage to see if the follow spot operator could keep up with him, but once he got started and regained his breath he not only had good gags, he had the balls to take on heckler man and actually shut him up like a complete pro, earning a phenomenal round of applause from the audience and lifting the mood. His dark, cool brand of comedy should get him booked steadily and soon, if he’s got plenty more where that came from.

My heart sank slightly when Loretta Maine took the stage, another gorgeous girl with a guitar, but stone me, with original, genuinely funny songs that didn’t sound like parody or pastiche and a super smoky voice. Her presence and aplomb gave her great command of the audience and I wouldn’t have guessed she was a character, created by sketch group comedy actress Pippa Evans. Her cynical anti-love songs secured her second place.

The most vanilla act of the evening was Dylan Bray, who gave the comedy equivalent of an easy listening set. He was slick, had honed gags with wide appeal, very likeable, but needs to be a bit less generic, there was nothing that made him distinctive, for good or ill. A bit less rehearsal and bit more electricity required.

Next up, Jack Whitehall, now a new act final veteran after Laughing Horse and So You Think You’re Funny was a polished and watchable as ever, changing gear, from a constructed rant, to mocking his world traveller bore mates. Topical, taking the jokes to the audience and showing a pleasant mix of confidence and modesty, he is still literally finding his voice, trying out at least three styles of delivery in five minutes. He should embrace his middle-classness and own it, then he won’t have to worry about whether he’s Stewart Lee or Jack Dee tonight.

Kate Smurthwaite was the female comic brave enough to take the stage without musical protection. Announcing herself as a controversial comic, with complaint letters to her credit, she was funny, but with such condescension to her chavvy-sounding sister-in-law who had the temerity to marry into the family, that I sympathised with the underdog rather than Kate’s alpha female.

Last up, after a ridiculously long night, Manos was a character act, from Emannual Kenallos, who stayed this side of the Stavros style of parody and had some elegant things to say about the Greeks and Romans, with some rather more acerbic comments on Turks and Cypriots. The act was successfully amusing and consistent in its own terms, although he slid towards crudity in the end, but hey, at least he didn’t start there.

Luke Toulson, last year’s winner, had the unenviable task of marking time while the judges thrashed it out upstairs. Without the adrenaline of the competition to keep him fired up, his languid, intelligent and confessional manner became stuttery and he seemed more nervous the longer that he was on stage. His self-deprecating remarks about winning the competition seemed to undermine his confidence for a while, but he pulled it back and finished the night well.

Then only the ‘utterly shambolic’ awards ceremony remained, with Clare and Roland Muldoon speaking over each other to announce the winners and Arthur Smith interjecting in exasperation from the side. A real curate’s egg this show, and long may it continue to throw up the weird and wonderful, so that we can continue to appreciate the best new acts for what they are.

Reviewed by: Julia Chamberlain
February, 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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