Robert White etc at Dukes Headliners

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

The last time I tried to review Robert White, at the Edinburgh Fringe, he got so spooked by the prospect of a critic, he just could not perform. To put that incident behind us, we’ve agreed on this gig, where he’s headlining in front of a small but lovely crowd. Not that White is exactly untroubled in his performance, which is dominated by prominent nervous tics, both vocal and physical, making for a set more jumpy than a bag of frogs, and just as mad.

Yet that hyperactive energy, partly fuelled by his Asperger’s-syndrome autism, creates a uniquely compelling delivery. It’s like listening to an old episode of the Goon Show on fast-forward, as snippets of puns, stories and musical bursts from his primitive keyboard smash into each other in a babbling cascade of odd humour.

The cost is that gags often aren’t given much space to breathe, but the pace is appealing, and there are some inspired jokes in the melee. When he loses some of that twitchy mania, as he relaxes (a bit) into the routine, the lively spirit is diminished a little.

An extended bit of banter with an audience ‘volunteer’ is an excuse for little more than some gross Julian Clary-style double entendre, but with less of a cheeky wink. However, tonight’s victim’s inability to grasp the basic rules of engagement yields laughs – although a touch of tetchiness, too, from White. He’s got a quick improvisational wit, though, which frequently surfaces throughout an unpredictable set that also includes jaunty satirical songs and even the odd prop gag.

It’s inconsistent, but the best is impressive, even if he could do with a more clarity in the delivery that big clubs and TV producers demand. How he does that without losing his haphazard charm will be a tough circle to square.

The evening, kicked off with Matthew Highton, who bears an unfortunate similarity in booth looks and comic approach to Alex Zane. He engaged in rather a lot of aimless audience banter, redundant as compere Kate Smurthwaite had ably been through the entire audience, while his random, pseudo-surreal ramblings left the audience cold. Not that he has yet settled on one approach, and other chunks scored better, with a couple of amusing topical moments and an inspired offbeat comment inspired by old video games. But he needs his own voice, rather than the universal tone of cool, detached irony and unfocussed randomness that makes him seem a bit studenty, in the worst sense of the word.

Talking of weird, Norwegian Daniel Simonsen raised the stakes. His stark, unsmiling demeanour, imposing spectacles and strong Nordic accent, exaggerated, and slowed down to a creepy monotone, disquieted the audience. The strange sense of uncertainty elicits nervous laughs from the dry-as-dust non-sequiturs, but you wouldn’t want to listen to more than a few minutes of this quirky whine. But it’s an entertaining break from the norm in short doses.

Club co-promoter Justin Brett was more expressive and lyrical, with a couple of reasonable, but forgettable, comic poems and a deliberately intimidating paean to some unfortunate front-row woman that got the funny-stalkery balance slightly wrong. His calling card, though, is that familiar shtick of being a posh boy rapping about his privileged life. Shame Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer does this so much better… if Mr B is Eton, Brett is a minor provincial grammar school.

More music from Carly Smallman, who’s perhaps a better songstress than she is comedian, although her folksy MOR tunes remain warmly entertaining. The shorter ones that open the set rely a little to predictably on ‘the old switcheroo’, but longer numbers are wittier. Her ode to being middle-class might not be strikingly original in inspiration, but its accurate list of stereotypical behaviour strikes such a strong note of recognition, especially here in chichi Putney, that it goes down very well.

Gwilum Argos is a very straightforward comedian, with a few good gags but a good proportion of duff ones, too. Much of his set revolves around films, with one-line quips about them all, though it seems superficial to make just one glib joke about an entire movie and the length of the list becomes tiring. On the other hand, the set moves quickly along, so he’s never wrong for long… and a gag that does shine will be along at some point.

So as with most smaller clubs, the bill was variable, but the club itself is a little gem, set up with care and attention in the intimate basement of a slightly posh, and rightly popular, pub. It’s definitely worth your patronage if you’re in this corner of South-West London.

Review date: 15 Oct 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Dukes Headliners Putney

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