Leicester Comedy Festival preview show

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

You probably couldn’t get two more different comedians than Jenny Éclair, who hosted the Leicester Comedy Festival preview in outrageously sordid style last year, and Barry Cryer, who did the more sedate honours this time around. He protested that as a ‘gag man’, compering was not his forte – though soon dispelled that idea with his well-stocked arsenal of hoary pub yarns and dressing-room anecdotes.

The only criticism was that his opening monologue was too short; not just because we wanted to hear more, but because first act Seann Walsh seemed to be thrust on stage before the audience had time to settle. But Cryer’s reappearances as the comedy grouting between acts were unfailingly warm, witty and well-told. Who needs banter when you’ve already accumulated a lifetime’s worth of affection?

But it’s not all time-honoured one-liners; Cryer can also be playful, too, as demonstrated by his cheeky impersonation of Michael McIntyre – the son of his former writing partner Ray Cameron – skipping purposely across the stage.

Speaking of McIntyre, Walsh’s most successful routine is very much in the vein of the BBC’s new prime-time darling as he re-enacts those moments when you stumble in the street, or suddenly need to perform a U-turn while strolling.

The rest of Walsh’s set was a similarly affable mix of everyday observations and admissions of the stupid things he’s done. Sometimes the material is slight, with a reduced laugh rate to match, though Walsh has such charisma and innate, underplayed command of even the largest stage that it’s enough to simply enjoy his company.

Nina Conti provided the variety element of the night, with her well-crafted ventriloquism act in which her simian sidekick places her under hypnosis so he can do his song… how many speciality acts do you want in one performer?

Conti continues to bring her artform up to date, with a deconstruction that goes beyond the usual gags about where the performer’s hand has been placed. She mocks the ridiculous artifice of ventriloquism, then turns it back on its head by making Monk such a credible character, you might just believe he has his own personality. And all this done with the incredible technical skill needed to pull off a baritone Nessun Dorma through unmoving lips.

Jim Smallman pressed all the local buttons with jibes about his nearby hometown of Hinckley. Though in truth these are exactly the same hack yokel put-downs comics are using up and down the country (‘the sort of place where they still point at airplanes’). But the set improves as it progresses: his tales of schoolkids trying to guess his first name when he was a teacher start a little slack, but his belief in his material pulls the audience on-board; while his closing minutes about the most unusual of his many, many tattoos prove a solid hitter.

Over the years, Rob Rouse has evolved from a manic force of effervescence into a more anecdotal style of comedy – ie he’s actually starting to get some material now. He still delivers with force, but reining in the exaggerated excitability. Here, he covered buying diarrhoea medication, babies and their unsuitable names and his sexually experimental dog – in a consistently funny 20-minute set. There’s not quite the killer instinct that sets the very best comics apart, but he’s a very personable performer, turning explicit material cheeky and spreading the joy with regular laughs. The, erm, climax of his canine routine was especially effective, ensuring everyone went into the interval happy.

Relative newbie Marlon Davies is an even more joyous performer, with his infectious grin, animated delivery and mischievous sense of humour proving so irresistibly disarming that Leicester was more than prepared to overlook the London-centric nature of his routine about Boris Johnson and the buses. This section is a slight triumph of his boyish enthusiasm over material, but pin-sharp gags contrasting his parents’ separate house shows he’s developing into an impressive writer, too.

Though I’ve since revised my view, the first time I saw the morosely deadpan Angelos Epithemiou, I wasn’t convinced by his tortured reluctance, drawn-out pauses and over-indulged repetition. Luckily the audience here saw the gag quicker, and instantly bought into his brilliantly executed anti-comedy shtick. Jokes he doesn’t understand, songs he doesn’t know the lyrics of, and an inability to show any positive emotion makes Dan Skinner’s creation beautifully distinctive, and a welcome change of tone to comedy, let alone this bill.

Irish-Iranian Patrick Monahan, on the other hand, is all generous bonhomie, making the audience feel warm and toasty as he liberally spreads the goodwill like a professional meeter and greeter. But everything he said is so forgettable, I had to refer to the footage to remind myself of his material just a few hours after the show. There’s a bit of bar-room banter about ‘who would you rather sleep with…’, an unlikely premise that Mujahideen is a Scandinavian brand of food processor and some lightweight comments about women’s magazines such as Chat. A couple of good gags lie within, but it’s mainly banter – unmemorable, but sure to cheer you up.

‘Two Iranians on one bill. You don’t often get that. In Tehran,’ said Monahan’s compatriot Shappi Khorsandi, as she opened her set. She’s smart, vivacious, innately funny and eminently likeable – tipped only this week as a rising star of the BBC as it seeks to promote more entertainers who are neither white nor male in the shake-up Jonathan Ross’s departure will trigger. Tonight, while all those attributes were on obvious display, she was also unfocussed, never quite convincing that she knew where her set was heading, and sidelining into blether when material was needed.

She would intermittently remember where she was and dole out one of the corking gags that made her reputation (including a fantastic new one about the Iranian equivalent to the ‘Cheers!’ toast) – but this wasn’t the sharpest set. She blamed the twin strains of being a single mum and the strain of appearing on Question Time the previous night. That all sounds feasible, but let’s hope she’s not stretching herself too thin to achieve all she can in stand-up.

Cryer returned to wrap the show up, for a musical duet with long-time collaborator Ronnie Golden that was comically tough on the ear, but belted out with the conviction of a man half his age. A neat ending to an efficient and enjoyable night’s compering.

  • The Leicester Comedy Festival takes place from February 5 to 21. Clips from the preview show will be posted on Chortle, starting later this week.

Review date: 17 Jan 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester De Montfort Hall

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