Leicester Comedy Festival Preview Show 2008

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

One of the biggest events of the Leicester Comedy Festival is its preview show, where acts who might only be playing in rooms holding a few dozen people come February find themselves playing to 1,500 people in the city’s De Montfort Hall. The exposure can mean the difference between sell-out and wash-out – but only if they can win over this vast, quiet room.

Host Jason Byrne did manage to inject energy into the void, through dogged perseverance as much as anything else. By relentlessly mocking the lack of atmosphere, cackling in disbelief at the sluggish response and treating every mundane audience comment as if it was the most outlandish thing he’d ever heard, he slowly but surely overcame the Friday-night ennui. This is a comic who can genuinely make something out of nothing; and the fact the gig turned out to be a success is testament to his deft crowd-handling skills.

Steve Day was slow to capitalise on the lead-in, however, seeming to trundle out his oldest material about being Britain’s only deaf comedian and the father of five children by dispassionate rote. His delivery is solid enough to see him through, but some sparkle was missing - in the first half of his set at least. As he got more chatty and less gag-driven, telling such witty tales as his intimidation by a gang of hoodies, he came alive more, as he seemed to take an interest in his own material.

In contrast, Paul Sinha offered an object lesson in how to play to this large crowd from the get-go. His fast, fluid and passionate monologue, whipping briskly through drunkenness, homophobia, race relations, religion and family relationships through the prism of his own experience, was an absolute joy. Honest, intelligent and sharp, he sets up each section with a serious point, only to spear any potential pomposity with a funny, flippant punchline. All this, and an uplifting message, too. Don’t expect to be able to get your hands on tickets for his festival show after this barnstorming performance…

Mrs Barbara Nice tends to divide the room, depending on your reaction to shameless audience participation. But even the most recalcitrant objector has to concede that Stockport’s own housewife superstar has oodles of charm to match her persistence. Half of her set is a well-observed character piece, as she gossips excitedly about her ordinary world as a Primark-shopping, anorak-wearing, Take-A-Break-reading menopausal mother of modest means. Even during this she asks us to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ along, creating a lively dialogue with the audience, rather than talking directly at them. But you’ll remember her for the set pieces, tonight stage-diving to Iggy Pop, then crowd-surfing above a disappointingly small number of volunteers she gathered in front of row A. Although she had previously led the whole auditorium in a playful Bollywood dance, her infectious enthusiasm and impressive powers of persuasion were clearly not as irresistible as they seemed. But she’s still a charmer.

Opening part two, Byrne could now relax into his own material, happy in the knowledge he’d successfully fluffed the audience out of their previous slumber. His view of the world is fairly bleak – with women as vicious, mean harridans and marriage as a life sentence of misery – but he delvers with such exaggeration, animation and sheer oomph, that it hits its mark each time.

Carl Donnelly was by far the least experienced comic on the bill, having won the new act competition at last year’s Leicester festival. His reward was to play here, and although his delivery might have been the most hesitant of the night, his quirky, childish material ranging from trading schoolyard insults despite his 26 years to doing forward rolls in his flat, certainly engaged the audience. His set can be immature and studenty, but he never claims to be anything else, and by staying true to his daft self, has as much honesty as a hard-hitting political comic.

Sarah Millican’s set had its ups and downs – the downs mainly down to the audience’s reluctance to accept her more filthy material. She started bluntly, with a gag about cucumbers and lubricant, and ended even more so, with a line about rape that went down like a BA jet from Beijing. But these are atypical of her act, which is mostly brilliantly observed comments about her life, generating laughs from the vivid images she so skilfully conjures up, rather than the supposed shock of a below-the-belt comment. Most of her set was her tried-and-tested shtick about her divorce, and the unthinking comments of her gloriously tactless dad, although she also moved on to fresher material about her post-married existence.

It took the audience a little while to cotton onto spoof hospital radio DJ Ivan Brackenbury; to get on his wavelength, if you will. But as the cues got increasingly bungled, and the song dedications ever more inappropriate, people warmed to him – eventually getting completely carried away in the vacuous excitement of the ‘roadshow’. The gags in the tracks he chooses – Coldplay’s Yellow for jaundice sufferers, for example – provide a litany of enjoyably sick puns, but creator Tom Binns forever runs the risk of being a one-note act. However, asides about the pretence of what he’s doing, gags in the faithfully authentic jingles and the character’s own sense of unaffected glee all help to counter this. And the rousing ovation he won at the end was indication enough of his success.

Overall, this night was a fine advert for the forthcoming attractions f the 15th Leicester Comedy Festival. Expect brisk business when it finally rolls around.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Leicester, January 18, 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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