New Variety Lives! at the Barbican

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

The definition of the term ‘new variety’ might be a moot point – as, on tonight’s evidence, is the assertion that it ‘lives’. Because this bill at the Barbican makes it look like it definitely needs a blast the defibrillator..

Back in the vanguard of the Eighties, when every comedy club – even Jongleurs – would book novelty and speciality acts, the phrase might have meant something. Today, you might think the revival in louche cabaret, as best exemplified Le Clique, might encapsulate its spirit.

But what we got tonight was some rather straightforward stand-up, with only a couple of members of the old guard valiantly holding up the variety element. If anything, that seemed to suggest that variety was something very much of the past – even though, in reality, that’s certainly not the case.

The vast room didn’t help. The show attracted a few hundred people, but too lost in the Barbican’s 1,200-capacity four-layered auditorium to generate an atmosphere. The bill was curated by the organisers of the Hackney Empire new act competition, which will be held in this very room in 2011, as internal politics has rendered its normal home dark. The newbies will have their work cut out building energy here.

Compere Arthur Smith isn’t, perhaps, the obvious powerhouse host you might need; doing his usual shtick of phoning in a few of his most desiccated gags from the get-go, but gradually charming the audience with his insouciant impishness, hidden behind that mildly cantankerous exterior. He’s a slow-burner, though, only coming alive when he hit his stride with later routines such as his take on Kipling’s If. Which means the earlier, newer, acts had to inject their own va-va-voom into proceedings, with mixed results.

In which vein, Inel Tomlinson certainly cut an engaging, spirited presence – but, my, did the material take forever to kick in. The long introductory section about his unusual name is clearly payback for years of playground teasing, but, apart from the eventual payoff, he didn’t make us care. An uncommon name is not enough.

His take on being considered the spokesman for every black person by his white friends is more promising, though he never quite manages to nail it, while passing off weak observational material as things he allegedly heard stoned teenagers on a bus saying is disingenuous and bland.

Like Tomlinson, Maureen Younger had the gift of the gab and an appealing persona of a lazily saucy flirt, but coming up short on material. She has a strong sense of timing, judging each pause and emphasis for maximum impact, but the topics of conversation, from pretending she’s pregnant to get a seat to her intolerance of the meaningless ‘like’ that so often peppers conversations (which she naturally takes literally to mean ‘similar to each time) are strictly lightweight, leaving no lasting impression.

Imran Yusuf, however, showed why he was deserved of his Edinburgh Comedy Award best newcomer nomination. He’s far from the finished article, but his attitude is faultless, as he has fun with people’s preconceptions of him. The playful skewering of the stereotype that as a brown-skinned Muslim he must be up to something are only to be expected… but he also finds himself a victim of stereotypes for belonging to that other group of ethnic pariahs: Englishmen. It seems like a fresh take on twin-culture ideas, that doesn’t need the twee ‘we are the world’ sign-off, no matter how sincerely felt, as the comedy sends the message on its own. His over-emphasised delivery works well in a big room, too, especially when he relaxes into it, rather than appearing too deliberate.

Michael Pearse is definitely more old variety than new; with a range of impressive balancing tricks – including an elaborate golf-club set up and some nifty diablo work – and gag-driven patter. He stands out, though for being an entertainer of particularly advanced years, not having taking to the stage until well into his 60s.

He’s a fun personality and he has some great jokes – but only in the way that Keith Chegwin has some great jokes; by ‘finding’ them rather than writing them. He didn’t even bother to update the almost nostalgically out-of-date reference to ‘Midland Bank’ in one punchline, while gags about Red Adair is just what today’s kids want. That he was the most entertaining act so far perhaps says more about the rest of the line-up, but he does offer evidence that personality is key for any performer.

After the interval – and Smith’s growling turn as misery-guts singer Leonard Cohen – came perhaps the highlight of the night. Under-rated Otiz Cannelloni hadn’t even been booked initially, but was a last-minute replacement for rap improvisers Abandoman. However as a veteran from the days when a dash of variety was more common on the circuit, he was a welcome replacement.

A mix of Del Boy and Tommy Cooper, he mangles his foreign phrases before attempting to flog us all manner of dodgy gear – in this case magic tricks – from the luggage he brings on stage. But the downbeat patter is exemplary, full of self-deprecating asides and splendidly daft one-liners, it’s no wonder that when his brief time was up there was a sizeable ‘aawh’ from the audience, all disappointed the magic couldn’t last longer.

In floral print dress and carrying a armful of books, Mary Bourke comes on looking like a chaste Irish primary school teacher, nothing her quietly deadpan delivery, almost lost in this yawning space, does anything to dispel. The material is inconsistent, ranging from the weak (unimaginative Facebook gags), through the reasonable (the very indentifiable routine about phone conversations with your parents) to the excellent (the made-up credits she asked an American compere to introduce her with, given she hadn’t any real Letterman appearances of which to boast).

However, the biggest laugh comes from simply reading out an extract from a Dan Brown novel, which proves how laughable an author he is. However the obvious clunkiness of the prose is deftly highlighted.

Finally John Hegley and his backing band the Popticians, a class act who nonetheless struggled to infect the audience with much vigour after such a long night. And clearly aware of the penalties the gig was incurring for over-running, some of the banter seemed a bit rushed.

Still Hegley’s lyrics are magnificent, and the subject matter reliably quirky, covering old favourites such as Eddie Don’t Like Furniture and the often-overlooked musical genre of songs from the point of view of a guillemot, performed to a pared-down bodhrum-and-bass backing track that made him sound like Lou Reed; if Lou Reed was from Hertfordshire. Luton Reed, if you must.

With his headmasterish demeanour and ease on stage, at one point sitting cross-legged in a pool of light to impart his poetic gems, Hegley is always a delight, even in less than ideal conditions. Tonight only whetted he appetite to see him – and Cannelloni, come to mention it – back in their natural habitat.

Review date: 10 Sep 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Barbican

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