Reading Comedy Festival New Act Of The Year

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

There was an awful lot of competence on show at the final of the Reading Comedy Festival’s new act competition, but not much brilliance.

But it would be foolish to see this as a bellwether for the wider state of the open mic circuit. Its selection processes isn’t rigorous – to get to the final you simply have to be one of the best three acts in one qualifying gig – and the modest prize of just single paid gig, isn’t likely to attract people from far and wide.

Still, the performance standard was decent – perhaps the result of comedy courses instilling a certain poise in many a stand-up newbie – even if the night was short on thrilling discoveries.

Opening act Stephen Hill was typical: Ultra-confident, with an appealing delivery but lacklustre material about how backward village folk are, or how casually-homophobic blokes can happily watch half-naked, oiled-up musclemen wrestling for the WWE. He was mostly amiable with it… or at least he was until he suddenly turned nasty, with a couple of abrasively harsh, utterly charmless and shamelessly unfunny gags about Kate McCann and gang rape turned the audience. A segment about a xenophobic neighbour that was derivative of, and greatly inferior to, a hard-hitting Marcus Brigstocke routine was nowhere enough to win them back round. Hill doesn’t yet seem to have found a personality or style of humour to stick with, so dabbles in several, with disappointing results and jarring changes of gear.

Tom Goodliffe was even more self-assured, but seemed altogether happier in his persona: a middle-class Home Counties chap, with a well-spoken eloquence that serves him well in stand-up, less so on the terraces of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. He’s skilled at dropping into accents to illustrate his tales, too, such as his no-nonsense father or loutish lads. He also employs the now-common technique of attempting to talk street, even though slang sits awkwardly on such mild-mannered lips. But while the performance is exemplary, there’s little of substance or distinction behind it. From that self-aware rapping to showing us some ridiculous books on seduction, Robin Ince-style, there’s no routine that he could say was unmistakeably ‘him’.

With his jittery delivery, Gerry Howell can claim to be more memorable, even if his scattergun approach does owe a debt to Eddie Izzard. The often surreal material is deliberately random and disjointed, but his nervous energy is appealing, elevating some dubious jokes into something more than their quality would suggest. However, some quirky segments – most notably a routine based on a scrap of trivia about Jules Verne and a few bits of nicely twisted wordplay – prove that he can sometimes produce the goods. Despite needing more consistently strong writing. there is something very engaging about him. It meant that, despite doing his own version of Trevor Lock’s already shaky ‘he pulled a knife…’ routine, Howell was strong enough to take the Reading crown.

Know Future are a very new double act that come across like drama-school freshers; all energy but no idea how to use it. Their premise is that they have visited from the future, but it has no internal logic, no sense of what they want to do with that idea, and crucially no jokes. It’s surely too early in their career to dismiss them, but they need to try harder if their punny name is not to be unfortunately prescient.

Mark Cornell looks rather like if.comedy nominee Rhod Gilbert, but sadly that’s where the similarities end. He moans about the bewildering choice of toothpaste in supermarkets and spoofs movie trailers, forgetting to put any punchlines in either. Strangely, he repeatedly made reference to his small forehead, not that anyone could notice any such abnormality. He has one very nice line about gift vouchers; but one good joke does not a routine make.

With Dave Florenz we stuck with confidence squandered on so-so material. There’s much potential here as he used to be a small-time drug dealer, which you might expect to be the source of many a tale. The one routine he has on the subject is pretty funny, if too slow to set up, but otherwise he sticks to safe subjects such as internet porn and meeting the girlfriends’ parents. He might never be sharp enough to be a slick stand-up, but could yet find a niche as a storyteller if he delves further and injects his routines with more pace and interest.

Ian Smith has a small handful of very good jokes, which he employs to good effect, and an appealing way of making his material seem fresh and ‘in the moment’. A previous reviewer found him ‘more uncomfortable than funny’, which seems unfair – but it did prompt him to write a review of his own to a local newspaper. It’s a nice premise, but unfortunately the idea runs out of steam before he does. But in this, and other routines, you can sense him trying to be different. He’s not there yet, but there’s certainly a potential, which is what landed him second place.

Tom Rosenthal occupies a Venn-diagram overlap between Ricky Gervais and Mark Watson, if you can imagine such a thing. Like Watson, he plays up the nervous, self-conscious geekiness; like Gervais he can nail a politically incorrect joke with false naivity. He’s found a few good ideas of his own, such as a magnificently camp Machiavelli learning what his name had come to stand for, and can employ a skilful turn of phrase. Again the promise is, at this stage, more than what’s delivered, but this third-placed act is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Helen Huscroft is perky and well-spoken, and it comes as no surprise when she tells us that she’s a primary school teacher, she just has that sort of air. Many of her stories are from the classroom, what the stock comments on report cards really mean, for example, or the occasional, and obvious, ‘…and that was just the teachers!’ switcheroo. The rest of the set is from the other end of the age spectrum: old folks’ homes and funeral directors. She’s slightly dismissive of the people in her stories, but never mean enough to threaten her broad likeability. It’s the sort of set that trundles along nicely, not really concerned with polished gags, which makes her engaging company, if not a great stand-up.

Richard Stainbank, dubbed a ‘male Jo Brand’ in his last Chortle review, certainly comes across as the outsider – an out-of shape, terminally uncool bloke in ill-fitting black clothing with a depressed air of uncomfortable desperation. It’s a good angle for a comic, if not necessarily for a well-adjusted member of society, and Stainbank initially mines it well, with some agreeably bleak turns of phrase and dark humour. Ultimately, however, the balance between awkwardness and comedy tips too far the wrong way – but the persona shows potential, even without an smidgen of slickness. Comedy’s not all about assured, polished delivery.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Readng, October 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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