Funny Women final 2008

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

The final of the Nivea Funny Women Awards last night celebrated the brand of comedians that form a minority on the circuit, usually stereotyped and marginalised to the extent that you’ll rarely see two on the same bill. Yes, there were some fine musical acts here.

It was a huge surprise that the best of them, Pippa Evans, didn’t win. That she wasn’t even placed is virtually a miscarriage of justice. Nonetheless, she can take solace in the fact that she’s got the talent for a sustained and stellar career in comedy, even without the temporary fillip a competition victory would have provided.

She performed as Loretta Maine, the scarily intense singer-songwriter who won her the runners-up place in this year’s Hackney Empire competition. This wonderfully unbalanced character flips between sweet and psychotic in a chord change, as she delivers beautifully bitter lyrics about the men – and the music business – that have wronged her.

The nuanced songs are great on their own, before you even consider some of the truly impressive one-liners between them. These inspired, quotable pearls of wisdom show that fine comic writing underpins her flawless, perfectly timed performance. Her set is subtle enough to be believable, but not too understated to be hilarious. A class act, for sure.

Evans may have been robbed, possibly because she was drawn first in the running order, but over the years – and despite an ever-changing judging panel - Funny Women has always tended to favour the bolder, louder comedians.

Tonight was no exception, with first place going to the brash, almost shrill, Katherine Ryan, who may be from Canada, but owes her perky persona to West Coast America. Dressed in bright, girlish pink, she gossips animatedly, her bubbly banter dripping with ‘Oh my god!’s and a deliberately exaggerated girlish laugh that accompanies every bitchy punchline. It could easily become infuriatingly grating for much longer than the ten minutes offered here, but she just about got away with it.

She has a tendency to head too quickly towards the bad taste, but you can’t deny that even if the jokes do rely on rape or bestiality, they are good lines – and she certainly has the chutzpah to pull them off. Some of her material is less convincingly pitched, which is when her energy doesn’t quite see her through, but that will surely be solved by experience.

Runners-up were Sara Pascoe and Rachel Stubbings. The breathlessly excited Pascoe bucked convention and started with her poorest jokes – imaging there was another competition called ‘fanny women’ for example. Yet despite the considerable handicap of such terrible material, she sold it so well that she still managed to get the audience on her side.

It meant that when she hit her stride with inventive routines about badly-punctuated abortion adverts or her ideal man, all taken to just the right lengths of stupidity, it hit home hard. Much of her act is an enjoyable fusion of silliness and intelligence - a comic who can get Nietzsche and cunnilingus into the same breath has to be applauded. She couldn’t quite shake the addiction to bad jokes, which had a habit of surfacing every now and then, but otherwise there was some impressive work here.

The deadpan Stubbings was a different kettle of fish. She is a female Gareth Keenan, mimicking The Office boy’s every personality quirk – from empty threats of violent outbursts, to saying the most inappropriate things without a flicker of emotion.

Unfortunately, though, there were very few jokes. The reading of a list of pet peeves scrawled on her arm provided a few titters, but little more, and the complete lack of enthusiasm in her deadpan persona proved as infectious – and welcome – as crabs. The judges must have obviously seen something in her, but I couldn’t share their vision.

Of the other acts, Grainne Maguire is an engaging and natural performer, but in need of some stronger writing. There are some nice touches in her routine – from her never-impressed dad, or the campness of Catholicism – yet these isolated moments don’t quite clump together into something solidly funny.

She’s also dabbling in the fashionable area of whimsical lo-fi comedy, with similarly mixed results. An enjoyable bizarre piece about robins and migrating birds provides a hearty laugh when she snaps out of it and back to reality, but the home-made cartoons on her flip chart were less reliable.

Girl & Dean are an almost defiantly old-school sketch double-act, starting with a skit that could almost have appeared in any undistinguished university revue of the past 30 years, adopting posh voices as they acted out a scene set in Pangbourne Women’s Institute.

Their rigid dialogue is too-clearly scripted, even when they start to talk as ‘themselves’ – speaking like no real person does outside of comedy sketches. But their emotional chill began to thaw as they went on, as a few genuinely funny lines crept into their banter and they became more relaxed. They probably can write quite well, but they need to leave the drama-school performances behind.

Rachel Fairburn cut a compelling figure as a sweet, but doom-laden Mancunian, sharing not just an accent, but a whole comedy outlook, with Caroline Aherne. Her material exposes her relative inexperience, with probably as many misses as hits. When it failed, it really failed – the extended bibliophile/paedophile confusion, for example, fell at the first - but when it worked it was fresh and imaginative. That, plus her stance and persona certainly suggest potential.

Rowena Haley was the night’s other musical turn, and while her songs felt slightly two-dimensional in comparison to Pippa Evans’s nuanced act, there was certainly plenty to enjoy. She’s entertainingly intolerant, whether it be of public displays of affection, desperately tedious boyfriends or rough families running amok in shopping centres or Yates’s Wine Lodges, the bilious passion is unmistakeable. Combined with an obvious skill for songwriting, this makes Haley a more-than-solid comedian, even at this early stage in her career.

Elaine Malcolmson really struggled, not helped by unimaginative material that she bled dry. Set-ups about Heather Mills or What Would Jesus Do immediately suggests she’s often going down the same route as much more experienced comics – against whom she can’t hope to compete. Each premise is also laden with so many useless tag-lines, extending the routines long after the audience loses interest, that eventually the routines collapse under the sheer weight of mediocrity.

Sarah Campbell talks about being middle-class and a lesbian, brought up so she has to ask the audience: ‘I’m gay, does anybody mind about that?’ Not only do we not mind, we don’t care, which rather sinks the whole set. In fact, the only think we probably care about less is the fact she had a bad hairstyle 20 years ago, but she talks about that at great length, too. Shame, she had a great opening line – but absolutely nothing to follow it with.

Such anomalous glitches aside, this was a mostly impressive night. Even if the wrong Funny Woman won.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
London, June 2008

Review date: 1 Jun 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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