Laughing Horse New Act Final 2009

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

The Laughing Horse is the behemoth of open mic organisations, running 11 club nights a week, Edinburgh’s far-too-vast, open-to-anyone Free Festival, a thriving Brighton Fringe venue, and several other gigs – all using new and newish talent.

The scale of their new act competition is no less ambitious, with a staggering 86 heats, quarter and semi- finals accommodating more than 650 entrants. That is an awful lot of competition – but it does mean the 13 who made the final had already proved themselves a step ahead of the ever-growing pack of comedy hopefuls.

It ensured a solid standard on the night, but also made it hard to identify a stand-out winner among a sea of accomplished finalists, with only personal taste separating the top few.

In the event, the title went to the first act, Sam Gore, dispelling the myth that the opening slot is a cursed one. This acerbic Leeds student is fast filling up his trophy cabinet, having scooped the Hull Comedian Of The Year and the Beat The Frog World Series titles last year, and taking the silver in the English Comedian Of The Year competition only last month.

Gore’s act is so harsh and abrasive you could probably polish diamonds with it. His persona is that of a supercilious, arrogant and snide nihilist whose unremitting tide of poisonously disdainful insults are delivered with an ever-patronising sneer. He uses multiple pile-ups of venomous adjectives to powerful effect, producing laughs from the sheer ferocity of his attacks. ‘I can be a bit offensive,’ he admits, which is about the only sentence he utters that contains understatement.

He was followed by the similarly gloomy Tony Dunn, whose dark material and measured Scottish accent inevitably invites comparisons with Frankie Boyle, in which he can only come out the worse. He has a nice manner about him, saying hip phrases like ‘this is how I roll’ in an entirely unsuitable tone, but several of his ideas – such as finding it hard to distinguish between the genuinely mentally ill and people speaking on their hands-free mobile – are over-familiar.

Michael O'Donovan had a warmth to his unhurried delivery, but he took far too long to set up such idea as lazy people being transported on airport travellators or the mathematical impossibility of ‘giving 110 per cent’. In his best moments, he hints at a seam of abject depression that has the potential to be used to better effect – but this wasn’t his night; and he seemed to know it.

Delivery is Jason Patterson’s strong suit, too, effortlessly drawing the audience in with his opening anecdote – only to blemish it with a tired pull-back-and-reveal punchline. But his tales of traveling to New York and the Philippines, where being black caused endless curiosity among the locals, kept the crowd interested. He hasn’t yet got strong enough punchlines to always back it up, but Patterson’s likeable yet authoritative stage presence is thoroughly engaging.

Proud Geordie Kai Humphries started his short set on wobbly ground, with all-too familiar gags about the glib morale-booster ‘whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ or nicking flowers from roadside tributes. But he hasn’t yet settled on one particular style, and if you don’t like those lines, he’s also got whimsical surrealism and disproportionate rage in his armory, too. In the first, he cannot help but sound like Ross Noble – again, the similarity of accent only drawing attention to the similarity of approach – but he does pull enough laughs out of his Narnia-based nonsense to make it work. But it’s the misplaced fury that comes off best, as he rants frustratedly about the big issues, such as the fake drawer kitchen designers include beneath the sink. The variety of approaches suggests he’s still got to define his distinctive voice, but there’s enjoyable stuff here.

Lady Garden are a hugely accomplished – and much-acclaimed – sketch group; though the change of pace in putting them on a stand-up night can’t help but jar. These six young women are clearly slick, versatile and talented comedy performers, although the three brief sketches their seven-minute slot allowed didn’t quite do them justice. The first, about three Sloaney girls and their spiralling one-upmanship for authenticity in their vintage clothing, is more knowing than funny, and necessarily drawn-out; wile their second, set in Tesco’s monopolistic call centre, was funnier, thanks largely to the taut timing of the performance. The final scene, though, is the one that really made an impression, with the sextet taking boisterous ladette culture to its absolute extreme and be having like the rowdiest stag party on a night out. Funny, perfectly observed and energetically performed, this is the sort of calling-card that will open doors.

After all that enthusiasm, low-key stand-up Joe Lycett took a couple of minutes to establish himself. His likeable, slightly fey manner seems more amicable than hilarious as he complains mildly about some of the less edifying aspects of student life. But slowly, subtly, he grows on you. He set may revolve around only the slightest of anecdotes, but he draws them out with the skill of an accomplished storyteller until you, too, are absorbed in the minutiae of his life.

Fergus Craig was surely the most established name in the final, thanks to his previous work as part of the double-act Colin and Fergus. That sketch background has given him a slightly theatrical style – a sort of formalised version of Jeremy Hardy’s bewildered shrug – but backed up with impressively witty and inventive writing. The off-kilter phrasing of his gags, the playfulness with which he attempts potentially racist accents and the general air of self-deprecation all make for a laugh-out-loud set.

Irishman Andrew Ryan started with that most tried-and-tested comedy staple: telling us which celebrity he resembles. But, to be fair, he REALLY does look like Ardal O’Hanlon. The similarities don’t end at the physical, as they both share an unaffected warmth, a slight bemusement at the world, and a vulnerable likeability that has the audience immediately on-side. His line about his pal Liam is an inspired classic, and even that old comedy fallback of going through dating ads is brought to life by his easy-charm. One to watch, for sure.

There’s nothing restrained about Helm and Taylor – a full-on act of shouty banter, myriad props, amazingly laboured puns and exaggerated reactions. Looking like extras from My Name Is Earl, this bombastic duo relentlessly assault the audience with every trick in the book to sell their frankly ropey wordplay. And despite – or perhaps because of – the groansomeness of their tatty material, the sheer force with which they push it becomes the gag in itself. Like Tim Vine or the Raymond And Mr Timkins Revue, all resistance is swept aside by their overwhelming personalities. The majority of the room loved them – and with a passion – the rest seem confused by the bad jokes at the core of this unusual, hyperactive act. And that’s probably not a bad position to be in so early in their careers.

Such high jinks made them unfollowable. So, showing a maturity beyond his experience, Martin Neill did his best to acknowledge the abrupt gear change. He was always going to suffer in that slot – especially as, stylistically, he doesn’t bring all that much new to the world of stand-up that you can’t see from countless other young middle-class white men. But that straightforward approach belies some impressively strong writing, with a small handful of memorably funny lines in amongst his long flights of dark fantasy.

Alex Maple was a strange fish, opening with some Jimmy Carr-style one-liners that were hit and miss, though did occasionally find a solid laugh. But then he moved on to a confusing and frustrating back-and-forth argument about religion – which occasionally slipped into Dr Seuss style verse, for no obvious reason – building up to a weak get-out line to end it. It’s possible Maple was trying something too ambitious for a short slot, but the result was rather baffling.

Closing act Lambros Fisfis was, however, the weakest on the bill, with lots of put-downs aimed at himself being Greek, having a beard and a monobrow before moving on to the easily-mocked airport question ‘Did you pack this bag yourself.’ A tired mix of national stereotypes and weak observation made for a flimsy few minutes indeed, saved only slightly by one quick-witted ad lib.

But overall the style was high, as you might expect from the result of such a ruthless selection process to get to this final in the first place.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
May 2009

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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