BBC Comedy Presents... [Manchester 2008]

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

In these straightened times, this certainly represents value for money, You could have taken a party of seven to the £7 BBC Comedy Presents show in Manchester for the price of one Sarah Silverman ticket.

And there’s a strong line-up, too, beginning with host Dave Spikey – although he doesn’t get off to the most original of starts, with the old reference to the backdrop ‘the last time I saw curtains like this, we never saw our granddad again!’ It gets a laugh even though the Comedy Store has a plain black backcloth, not the red-velvet theatrical curtains the gag was originally written about.

Despite the very small proportion of old, unoriginal jokes such as these, Spikey makes a hugely entertaining compere. His ethos – strangely lacking in a lot of performers – is that everything’s about packing in the gags, so punchlines come thick and fast, and if a couple of old ‘uns fit the bill, well it’s an extra laugh isn’t it? Don’t like this joke? No matter, another’s along any second.

After sharing a few ridiculous headlines from parochial local newspapers – whether genuine or not, it’s hard to tell – Spikey’s running gag tonight is to play snippets of hits, and take issue with their illogical lyrics. Sometimes the songwriter will hand him targets on a plate, sometimes Spikey sees something much more subtle. The ‘beat-the-intro’ game show element and breezy laughs makes for an upbeat, entertaining atmosphere, enlivened by Spikey’s fireproof delivery and easy chumminess.

Dan Nightingale is usually a compere, too – one of the best in the business, in fact – but tonight he takes the opening slot. His observational material, from the standpoint of a middle-class modern man grappling with ambiguities the average Nuts-reading lad doesn’t have, is solidly funny with an undeniable ring of truth.

Source material includes TV ads – which he comments upon with a silly sarcasm – and his relationship, in which he is intimidated when his girlfriend rocks up pissed after a night with the girls. It’s broadly universal stuff, well told – if slightly lacking in a strong attitude that would give it more punch.

Although reliably funny, his written material isn’t yet up to the high standards of his spontaneous stuff; and the moment this set feels special is the moment Nightingale starts chatting with the bouncer, flashing the quick wit that makes him such an in-demand MC.

Lady Garden are a relatively young, all-female sketch troupe that attracted some favourable attention at this year’s Fringe. It’s easy to see why, as they’re slick without being smug, and demonstrate a wry wit underpinning many of their skits.

But the theatrically of sketch comedy rarely flourishes in a stand-up arena, and here is no exception. The girls come out of it creditably, rather than heroically as even with just half-a-dozen or so scenes there are a couple of duds.

However, they certainly show a well of promise and a maturity of writing beyond their years. The smart sketch mocking obsessions with vintage clothing, particularly, skilfully and incrementally increases the exaggeration to fine effect; while the best man speech succeeds for eschewing the obvious. It takes a moment for the penny to drop, and the effect is all the better for it. If they resist the hype of the Edinburgh village, and continue to graft at their craft, a long comedy career surely awaits.

Opening part two, Andrew Lawrence launches into his typically rancid bitterness; a self-described ‘scrawny sack of disappointment’ bemoaning his lot in life. His persona hates humanity as much as he hates himself, and the relentless grim misery behind the act gives it a sharp bite.

He has the performance skills to pull it off, too, with a versatile cartoony voice that would be perfect for radio character work, Kenneth Williams-style. With this powerful tool he acts out ridiculous vignettes, such as inconsequential chit-chat with his hairdresser or the unlikely late-night TV ads promising ‘girls in your area waiting to chat’, to hilarious effect. The offbeat writing certainly helps makes this set distinctive, too.

While no one would want to be trapped in a lift with this character, John Bishop is a different kettle of fish. He is the ultimate Everyman: just like you, only better..

He has absolutely no airs as a comic, ambling on stage and chatting away as if he’s known us all for years. It doesn’t feel like he’s doing material, instead he’s just relating instances from his life as a working-class Liverpudlian made good, first in the business world, where he was a high-flying pharmaceuticals salesman, and now in comedy. If something happened to him on a Monday, it’ll be in his set on a Tuesday, told with charm and grace.

The downside of this, however, is that there are few concrete punchlines. The stories amble along nicely, and he instinctively knows how to give them a beginning, middle and end. But whether than end is hilarious is a moot point. In tonight’s set, only the story of doing panto on Merseyside really ended with a great joke.

He’s such a supremely likeable bloke, though, that this doesn’t seem to matter to most punters, who enjoy every moment in his affable company. I feel guilty for not liking his set as much as everyone else seems to.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Manchester, October 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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