Leicester Comedy Festival Preview Show 2009

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

The world of comedy can be an insular place. Acts hailed as geniuses by their peers and die-hard stand-up fans, may be received only coolly by the wider audience.

That’s why events like the annua l Leicester Comedy Festival Preview Show can be so revealing, with a good proportion of its sold-out 1,700 audience likely to have never seen the inside of a comedy club. This is a gauge of what real people think. In that sense, it’s just like the Royal Variety Performance… but less starry, in the East Midlands, and held in the presence not of a Queen or Prince, but a county councillor from Groby.

It’s not the most obvious audience for the more weird and wonderful acts who grace the circuit, so putting demented Dutch absurdist Hans Teeuwen on the bill might have been something of a gamble. But he was one of two stand-out stars of the night; joyous news for those who would argue that you don’t need to be bland to be popular.

Teeuwen can sometimes be self-indulgent, but when he bangs out his brilliant set pieces as he did here, his manic energy, air of unpredictability and just plain daftness hits the spot. He’s never going to be for everyone – many were surely baffled by why a man making his sock puppet eat a Mars bar could possibly be funny – but his songs about Nostradamus, his own name and a convoluted story about the sort of movies he likes certainly won this twisted cabaretier plenty of fans tonight.

The other highlight of the night was the far more conventional Micky Flanagan, regaling us with his stories of being a working –class Cockney Herbert made good. His background gives him the insight to talk with about both sides of the class divide: from the lack of opportunities – and ambition – of his youth, to the pretentiousness of middle-class restaurants and parenting. He is, literally, a class act.

This is social commentary many can relate to, but deftly delivered as personal anecdotes. The breezy Flanagan has charm by the sackful and a finely-honed talent for benevolent piss-taking, with himself more often than not the victim of his good –natured joshing.

The showcase was held together by Jenny Éclair, in what she claimed was her first ever compering job. She’s not a natural host, but splitting her loud and lewd act into smaller segments serves it well, and she providing brash, lively, cartoon-like fillets between the other performers without her relentlessly brassy ‘host-flush Barbie’ persona becoming overly grating. Even her filthy mouth was forgiven. The older she gets, the more ridiculous her persona becomes, and the greater the grotesque caricature.

Ever-genial Jarred Christmas went down a storm, too, as his nerdish obsessions drove him from mild-mannered Kiwi to increasingly impassioned ranter, railing about such vital causes for concern as the downgrading of Pluto’s planetary status, and the reorganisation of his personal Top Ten Dinosaurs chart. Such zealous displays tend to play well – especially when the gripe is so persona l – and Christmas has the perfect mix of likeability geekiness and dynamic performance skills to pull it off with aplomb.

Another nerd with issues, the pernickety Jon Richardson, also went down well, with his cheery confessions about his low-level misanthropy and borderline OCD behaviour that means he insists every DVD and item of cutlery has its place his well-ordered Swindon home. He manages to be simultaneously both grumpily intolerant and endearingly self-deprecating about his own debilitating foibles – so getting laughs of recognition and pity both at the same time.

Aging thespian Count Arthur Strong’s senile bungling and spluttered malapropisms split the crowd, as he cack-handedly re-enacted a scene from Dracula, which quickly descended into an insane argument with himself. Steve Delaney’s impressive creation is someone who never keeps his inner monologue on the inside, and the babblings of his decaying mind provided moments of brilliance. But the set didn’t fully gel here, and he probably ended up baffling as many people than he converted.

Henry Paker – winner of last year’s new act competition at this very festival and much-vaunted star of the future – was something of a let-down. His set, largely about the niceties of punctuation in this text-messaging age, was slick and easy to relate to. But it lacked much personality, and he seemed to be trying too hard to emulate Michael McIntyre’s universality of middle-class observations. He was by far the least experienced on the bill – though you wouldn’t know it from his assured performance – so maybe he wheeled out his tried-and-tested material to impress such a large crowd… but the result was more sterile than he is capable of.

Shazia Mirza was pedestrian, too. She’s much more cheerful on stage than she used to be, and in this shortish set concentrated on doling out the punchlines, some of which were about her Islamic faith, some of which weren’t. The workmanlike gags themselves were resolutely OK: straightforward, unsurprising, sometimes very obvious . Nothing all that memorable or spectacular, but a passable offering

Though entertaining, Mitch Benn didn’t quite provide the show-stopping finale you might expect from such a commanding musical act. His banter didn’t help: largely ungracious complaints about how badly he’d been treated by the festival n the 11 years it took him to get to headline this gig. His tongue was probably in cheek… but it came across as a self-centred whine. Benn did point out that his show at the festival proper will focus on the songs – with the backing of full rock and roll band – which might come as a blessing, as his set is at its best when he lets the songs do the talking.

His anti-James-Blunt ballad struck a chord; likewise his witty old faithful about male gruntings meaning ‘I love you’. He closed with a rock opera based on an epic literary tale – The Very Hungry Caterpillar – which is musically impressive, although not much of a barnstormer to bring this generally impressive showcase to a climax.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Leicester, January 2009

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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