Action Against Hunger night, County Hall

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Even at the peak of his GLC powers, I’m fairly sure Ken Livingstone didn’t take to County Hall’s chamber floor, act out anal sex with his fingers and tell the assembled politicians that was better than a ‘floppy old vagina any day’.

But now the empire has long fallen; the old seat of power holds so little authority that the comedians have taken over, the grandeur of history becoming a playground for mockery.

The council chamber of County Hall, the imposing neo-baroque building facing the Houses of Parliament across the Thames, makes an unlikely but imposing stand-up venue. The elegantly panelled room certainly brings a sense of occasion you don’t get when you enter the Walthamstow Chuckle Cabin, as you take to the plush leather benches, arranged in a horseshoe with a majestic speaker’s chair placed at mouth of the ‘U’, elevated like a throne.

In fact, it’s a bit too plush for a typical comedy club experience, which is what the first stand-up gig here – a charity tie-in with Action Against Hunger – tried to replicate. It’s too easy to relax back into the padded seating, wry chuckles dissipating into the high ceilings, rather than engaging with the acts. That you can’t bring drinks into the chamber – leading to a night split between the stand-up and a corporate-style reception in the makeshift ‘bar’ set up across the corridor – also doesn’t help.

And that’s before we get into the opening-night teething problems of no music, no mike stand, and intervals so short you have to gulp down those prohibited beverages at an unhealthy pace.

Commanding compere Chris Gilbert reeled out his best comedy-club banter before each act, even inducing one willing punter to belt out a Jeff Buckley number in lieu of the missing music… but the audience remained reticent despite his best efforts.

The buttoned-down audience didn’t quite know what to make of scraggly Australian death metal fan and new world order conspiracist Steve Hughes – but then again few crowds do. He began with his most accessible stuff, about his homeland’s conservatism and his lack of interest in the sporting culture – before espousing the perfectly convincing theory that there’s nothing gay about having sex with another man. It’s intelligent stuff, but a little obtuse for an opening act at a gig for casual comedy-goers, and his delivery was too relaxed to engage them.

And when he went on to suggest the charity wouldn’t achieve their hunger-busting aims without dismantling the whole global industrial complex, he wasn’t just off their wavelength, but completely off their dial, and the result was more patient bemusement than belly laughs.

Richard Herring went down much better than he thinks he did, judging by the post-gig commentary he shared with the room. Although his strength is always likely to be in one-man shows, his stand-up set is increasingly robust, including such well-honed routines as living his life by certain impractical mottos, subverting the French language’s insistence that a potato is a ‘pomme de terre’ and mocking the childish sign language for homosexuality – hence the ‘floppy vagina’ comment.

The segments play to both aspects of his persona of a slightly dysfunctional man-child with too much time to think: a winning combination of obtuse intellectualism applied to the most juvenile of subjects.

The section from his latest show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues with unequivocal irony that ‘racists might have a point’ with their moronically simplistic world view, is perhaps more wryly witty than laugh-aloud hilarious, but the audience were more than happy to go on the journey with him.

Headliner Rufus Hound make the best use of the imposing room; drawing the audience in with the subtle skills of a storyteller; his muted delivery a far cry from the louder rabble-rousing he’s forced to employ in his regular compering duties or on Dave’s Argumental. This venue does seem a little like a lecture hall, so Hound engrossed the audience with grand theories of evolutionary psychology to describe how the human race has come to interact how it does, and spreading a message of tolerance and inquisitiveness.

Oh, and sucking cock. It is a comedy performance, after all.

Actually, Hound’s picked up some tips from Herring and his erstwhile comedy partner Stewart Lee, in gently teasing an audience down a train of thought, only to subvert it – and often with a repetition whose very predictability becomes the joke. He is very eloquent about his cause – you could call him the Malcolm X of oral sex – but tempered with accessible observational material, largely about relationships, making for a quietly impressive set.

But the star of the night, which couldn’t quite be topped, was the building itself. More comedy nights are planned for this elegant venue; which will hopefully recognise its unique strengths and weaknesses, now lessons have been learned from this dummy run. A storytelling event would work well here, or something more theatrical or interactive, such as a comedy debate to go back to the chamber’s roots.

But for occasion alone, the place is a hit.

Review date: 27 Nov 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: London Movieum

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