Musical Comedy Awards final 2010

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

The Musical Comedy Awards are a great idea, my fellow judge and the night’s warm-up man Earl Okin says, as such acts rarely get to experience each other’s work. After all, it’s almost unheard of to find two music acts on the same bill.

But then having ten in a row – a mixture of competition finalists and showcased acts – means format fatigue is inevitable, now matter how diverse the styles. There is, perhaps, good reason why musical acts are usually so carefully rationed.

There’s no doubting organiser Ed Chappel’s enthusiasm for the genre, even though he makes for an ill-at-ease, overtly luvvie host of his own event in the New Players Theatre. Nerves get the better of him, and his lack of confidence manifests itself in a strained comedy voice that puts you in mind of the Muppets. But next to Chappel, Fozzy Bear is a relaxed natural. Meanwhile, his own contributions to musical comedy which punctuate the night are strangely mirth-free offerings, awkwardly twee, with muddled, unfunny lyrics and an unconvincing delivery.

Opening act Pippa Evans shows how it should be done, in the guise of her deliciously embittered singer-songwriter Loretta Maine. Her psychotic songs of obsession and doomed love – many from her wonderfully titled, if so far fictitious, album I’m Not Drunk, I Just Need To Talk To You – contain more bloodshed than Tarantino’s back catalogue, which would become something of a theme of the night. Seems like comedy songwriters are inevitably drawn to write about their warped killing fantasies. Evans does it exquisitely, though, with attention to detail in both the content and delivery, making for a scarily believable character.

The first competitor, Rob Carter, does what he does impeccably, too. Unfortunately, what he does has already been done rather well by a certain New Zealand folk parody duo. Sometimes he’s merely inspired by the Conchords, although more often he patterns of the uncertain, conversational writing and underplayed delivery are too close for comfort. His downbeat rap from a softly spoken middle-class perspective, with words like ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’ sitting uncomfortably on his lips, borders on the rip-off. That said, he demonstrates some delightful lines – especially in his not-quite-right euphemisms for sex – a nicely poised style and an engaging musicianship. It’s all just crying out for him to find his on voice, rather than appropriating someone else’s.

He, however, is a musical genius compared to Amateur Transplants – who are just the sort of act that gives musical comedy a bad name. This complacent, dated and lazy duo take hit songs, change some words, and make it a bit rude – under which artistically bankrupt process the song China In Your Hand becomes Vagina In Your Hand, or another unfortunate composition is mindlessly defiled until it becomes all about farts. Yes, it’s that basic.

That they rewrite one such number based on an impromptu audience suggestion is reasonably impressive, until you realise it exposes how easy it is to write their entire routine. The pair – Adam Kay and Sumar Biswas – met while studying medicine, and there is a tiresome medical revue feel to their whole set – that is when it rises above the primary-school level.

Third finalists Horse and Louis showed more promise, in a set that was skittish but strangely intriguing. They took such comedy staples as the infuriation of dealing with automated phone lines or being inept Theatre In Education types, messing up a school talk on the dangers of drugs, yet made it endearingly their own. A decent smattering of genuinely funny lines and a charming manner go a long way, and their final silver ranking is testament to the fact they felt a little different, even if their style has not quite set yet.

Next came Sooz Kempner – not competing, having already scooped the awards’ best newcomer title with only six gigs under her belt. Not surprisingly, her comic sensibilities aren’t particularly developed yet – she changed the lyrics of a song and delivered it as if she was Katie ‘Jordan’ Price – but she has a quirky style and a knockout voice which more than carried her through the one number she performed.

Another showcase act next, and another note-perfect performance from the dry-as-dust Ginger and Black, whose shy dynamic and well-crafted material are a winning combination. They performed a couple of their greatest hits – Hopes, Dreams and Aspirations plus Interpersonal Skills, which both feature a wealth of quite funny lines wth the occasional inspired payoff – followed by a newer, less musical, routine in which Black, aka Daniel Taylor described in precise detail a less-than-successful date; which again unfolded with escalating, and brilliantly timed, ‘reveals’.

Jay Foreman was probably one of the most musically talented finalists, with a versatile set and compositions that sit very easy on the ears. He also takes a oblique comic angle with his writing, rather than going for obvious targets, which means that songs like I’m Glad John Lennon Is Dead will intrinsically hold the interest more than your standard parody. Likeable presence, elegant performance and a sparse but effective collection of gags add to a very pleasant package full of wit, if not bite, and well deserving of his third place.

Brigitte Aphrodite who won the spirit of the awards performed next. From which we can gather that said spirit is ‘self-consciously kooky’. A sort of British Bjork – albeit one found among the trendy tribes of Camden or Brighton – she looks as if she dresses by dressing in Velcro ad running through a vintage shop and atonally barks her way through disjointed melodies. I’m not sure it’s comedy or music – more a fashion statement made into a cabaret turn. Strange girl.

Finally for the competitors – and rightly so, as it would be a hard act to follow – came Abandoman, recent winners of the Hackney new act competition. What this three-man outfit do is improvise a short rap musical based around the lives of a couple of audience members. Easy to describe, but difficult to do. Yet frontman Rob Broderick, pictured, makes it look a breeze – eloquently ad-libbing smart rhymes without a moment’s hesitation. Sometimes they’re funny too, which seems like a bonus considering the skill involved in just not dropping the hip-hop ball. The only criticism is the first half of the set, where Broderick seems to take an age to establish the key facts from his victims, is very slow indeed. But once that beat kicks in, this impressive outfit soar. No wonder they took home the prize.

Before that result was announced, though, Tom Basden – a delightfully underplayed contrast to the bombast of Abandoman. Basden deserves the greatest compliment you can give to a musical act – that the material would be just as good without the music. Offbeat one-liners and surprising longer gags are certainly richer from being set to his melodic guitar strumming and the precision timing a soundtrack adds – but this is a set that is distinctively funny on its own terms – even the newly-penned song about Nazi memorabilia he slipped into the set. The delivery might be modest, but the talent certainly isn’t – and demonstrating what you can really do in the name of musical comedy.

Review date: 29 Mar 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Charing Cross Theatre

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