Stand Up Get Down

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

This charity gig was billed as Jessica Hynes’s first stand-up performance. In the event, it wasn’t quite that monumental, as she mostly stuck to introducing the other acts with a few attempts at comic banter on the way.

That was probably for the best, given that stand-up requires dozens of stage-hours to perfect, even if you are as lovely and talented as the former Miss Stevenson undoubtedly is. Her confident, down-to-earth charm – and celebrity, no doubt – ensured the audience was always on-side, but when she dabbled in stand-up routines, there was little evidence of the genius that helped create Spaced.

Her longest routine was a windy tale of finding her mum’s vibrator – yes, that comedy staple – that would make an entertaining anecdote for a late-night talk-show, but was too undercooked to ever stand out in a club.

As a compere, she was flighty – forgetting several acts’ names and interrupting a couple of other’s sets – yet so natural and likeable she’s easily forgiven. But a stand-up she ain’t… at least not yet.

Hynes wasn’t the only famous name on the strange bill, which was jokingly described as ‘vagina-heavy’. More significant than the number of women was the fact that there were too many ill-focussed newer acts, an illogical running order, and too much whimsy, leaving the night short on hard-set jokes.

Opening was Stephen Merchant, who made no mention of his Office and Extras fame, and simply got to work on the routine that he’s quietly been honing over the last few months on the circuit.

He is an instinctively funny man, and genetics has given him the frame to match. His segments about being a freakish 6ft 7in are witty and charming, and brought to life with a skilful comic physicality. He mines the problems of making love to a smaller woman for all they are worth, awkwardly re-enacting the dilemmas with the aid of the microphone stand in a deliberately overextended routine that wavers between testing the audiences’ patience and rewarding them for sticking with it.

More winning self-deprecation comes with sly references to his stinginess, although a routine about fatties is dangerously close to the generic – but saved with a lovely payoff about oversized Y-fronts.

Newbie Miriam Elia certainly found him tough act to follow, especially as she claimed to be trying out lots of new material, which she would almost certainly have been best advised to save for a smaller gig.

Even though many of her gags misfired, this young Jewish comic has an engagingly quirky streak, which occasionally bursts to the surface with a perfectly pitched line. There are some off-the-wall jokes here that any comic would love to have written, such as her ideas for London Transport’s Oyster cards or her brilliant take on authentic Fifties diners. But at other times she hammers away at a thought even when it’s not producing many laughs, the prime example being her routine about being brought up by two artists, which ran out of steam almost as soon as it began.

However, there’s no doubt she’s brimming with quirky ideas, which more experience will surely focus more consistently. She offered enough intriguing material to suggest she’s one to watch, even if tonight wasn’t the best showcase for her.

Roisin Conaty also tried something new in her slot – with similarly mixed results. Her hair tousled up in some sort of Eighties homage, she adopted the character of a deluded fringe actress/playwright unwavering in her belief she’s about to hit the big time. Although she sidestepped most the luvvie stereotypes in favour of a more oddball approach, the meandering talk of her theatrical masterpiece was more bewildering that funny, and tried to make running jokes out of weak premises.

But to close her set she treated us to a song from that fictional show, and suddenly we were in much more rewarding comic territory. The lyrics – likening a failed relationship to a game of Monopoly – were stupidly witty, and Conaty performed it with the perfect level of ill-judged gusto.

Another relative rookie next, with the gushily talkative Grainne Maguire nattering away nineteen-to-the-dozen about such inconsequential flim-flam as her hard-to-pronounce name or just being Irish. She’s amiable enough and has deep reserves of excitable energy, but, a couple of nice throwaways aside, she finds the gags elusive.

‘At least I’m not Woody Allen,’ she said towards the end of her time, pointing out how he never makes anything decent any more – which is very thin ice for a comic who’s only engaged a minority of the audience.

After the break came the wonderfully named Pith The Magic Dragon – a magician in a cheesy fancy-dress dragon outfit. His persona is gloriously grumpy, at odds with the supposed spectacle of the illusions. Imagine Jack Dee in a dragon costume, and you’ve got the idea. The tricks themselves are standard fare, and he could certainly exploit his cynical misery more – but the concept is inspired.

Rich Fulcher is an acquired taste, though his Boosh and Snuffbox exposure has helped spread the word. Initially, his non-jokes and shouty, manic delivery drew a blank with a by-now indifferent audience. However, when he turned to more traditional segments with actual beginnings, middles and ends – all be they surreal ones – he won them over. And he beautifully played with the uncomfortable tension generated by his mere mention of the name of Josef Fritzl.

Michael Smiley was the most experienced comedian on the bill, but even he seemed to be struggling, with his sense of timing notably off-target. He started off very slowly, and much of his restless delivery was too quiet to carry to the back of the room. His chatty tales of childhood in working-class Belfast were evocatively described, but too often the gags were thrown away. And route-one material about adolescent masturbation, plus the mincing queen act he puts on to dissuade his daughter’s boyfriend, should really be beneath him.

Another TV name next, but unlike Stephen Merchant, Simon Amstell made no attempt to sidestep his celebrity. ‘Hello,’ he says to open, ‘I’m very famous.’

Luckily – for us, at least – being a familiar face is no protection against being a screw-up, and Amstell is disarmingly frank about his personality flaws, being vain, insecure and almost clinically depressed: ‘Really, is there anything worse than being alive?’

His honesty, his utter control of the stage, and the ability to harness his congenital self-absorbed misery into painfully sharp gags, make him a compelling comic.

Thanks to another bit of strange scheduling, Amstell wasn’t headlining the show. Instead that honour went to Josie Long who, delightful as she is, couldn’t match Amstell, gag for gag.

Her slow-burn whimsy takes a while to take hold, and it’s not until she gets to the solid jokes that are hidden behind that optimistically idealistic, lacksidasical exterior, that she wins laughs rather than just goodwill.

But as well as the good material, her mind often wandered into chit-chatting about ‘things I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks’ that hadn’t yet graduated from sweetly eccentric observations into more concrete material. It was a certainly a case of Long by name and long by nature of her set-ups.

Her performance was symptomatic of much of the night, with too many of the less famous acts seeming to treat the occasion more as an new-material testing ground that a ‘real’ gig. But when tickets are £16 – the same as the Comedy Store – audiences might rightly expect more consistency, even if the charitable comics are performing for nothing.

Seeing an on-form Merchant, Amstell and Fulcher justifies the price, but the supporting cast certainly struggled.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
June 18, 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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