Leicester Mercury Comedian Of The Year 2011

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Marissa Burgess

It's always a joy to take in the Leicester Mercury competition as all the contenders have been nominated by those in the know in the comedy industry – club promoters, agents and the like – so you can usually guarantee some degree of quality. It’s like having the final of a competition but not bothering with the heats where there's guaranteed to be at least one genuinely certifiable mental health services case, a student who's been picked to go on so late in the evening that they've imbibed a little too much Dutch courage or a nervy newcomer with that unmistakable startled-hare look in their eye.

Now in its 17th year, the comp's highlighted many a comedic talent o including the likes of Johnny Vegas, Jason Manford, Rhod Gilbert and Mitch Benn. This year the contenders are shepherded by compere Jarred Christmas, a near perfect choice just upbeat and energetic enough to cajole a coolish room into action – even getting a few people at the front to do the work for him at points in the show. And so to this selection of, disappointingly, mainly London-based acts.

Up first was Manchester's choice, Michael J Dolan. Of course it's always a tough spot to land in and given Dolan's misanthropic shtick it could have been very tricky indeed, but he took to the role with aplomb. Indeed Dolan himself self deprecatingly noted that 'they don't usually let me go on first,' but he upped the energy spitting out his fury at the injustices the world has dealt him - suffocating relationships and the sorrows of quitting smoking - all nicely tempered with the occasional wry smile.

Second up was Luke Benson with a finely accomplished set. Sensibly getting out of the way at the top, should any keen observers in the crowd want to point it out to him, at 6ft 7in he is very tall. The rest of the set was packed full of wordplay and puns some even worthy of a groan or two from the crowd. His is a mellow demeanour and effortless delivery that we're bound to see more of in the future.

Suzi Ruffell is full of nervy, sparky energy though possibly tonight that hinted at some real, understandable, jitters lying underneath the exuberant stage demeanour. She opened with some wry observations that the school bully had gleaned about her - a neat way of introducing herself. Elsewhere in the set there's some handy advice to avoid confusion when pulling a fellow lesbian. Many of the gags lacked punch but nevertheless it's an enjoyable set with a good visual end and callback. Plenty to work from.

There's often one act in competitions of whom you have to ask how they got here. Tonight it was Peter Walsh. Christmas introduced him as an impressionist and indeed he can perform some passable impersonations of celebs – but just sounding like someone doesn't make a comedy act. Impressions are left dangling waiting for the joke but no, he's already onto the next skit. He opens by pretending to gag with nerves and begins to regurgitate, 'oh' you think, 'maybe he about to produce a goldfish from his oesophagus but then takes it nowhere other than to hold the hand of a woman in the front row. To make it worse the one voice he chooses to labour is Stephen Hawking, that chestnut hammered by many a comedian even if they're not an impressionist. There's a lot of work still required before this is a comedy act.

Into the second half and Inel Tomlinson with some nice lines about being the token black comedian on the bill. He goes on to play about with racial stereotypes such as the reasons why Britain isn't yet ready for a black Santa Claus. Elsewhere in the set there are a couple of routines that are far too familiar, done too many times – such as your mum preferring to dress you in a cheaper version of the designer label you actually wanted. However what steers Tomlinson's through his ten minute set was the sheer irresistible cheeriness of his persona and the energy he invested.

With the long pause before he even appears on the stage, Ben Target clearly sets out his stall that this isn't going to adhere to the norm. Indeed within the first two minutes he's broken at least three rules of stand-up. It's around a minute before he says anything at all and when he does it's deliberately slow and spaced out. Dressed in rabbit hat and sporting the frankly terrifying combination of green trousers with purple jumper, Target continues to push at the boundaries of expectation throughout his set. It's not always the most rip-roaringly funny act of the night but it was certainly brave and innovative. Though there is one beautifully and languorously visual gag that deservedly elicits a big laugh from the crowd that's well worth waiting for.

Tom Rosenthal is about to start in Channel 4 sitcom Friday Night dinner, following his dad – sport correspondent Jim – on to the screen. But rather than shy away from the famous connection Rosenthal Jr announces it early in his set and proceeds to use it to great effect, ribbing his dad (and indirectly all sports commentators) for his hyperbolic use of language. Rosenthal's whole set is delivered with an admirably assured poise and infused with enthusiasm and energy. There's also a lovely display of stand-up tricks with an inventive callback to his opening material using a trophy prop that nicely rounds off his ten minutes.

Last up was Henry Widdicombe, who ended the comp with some delightfully nerdy pedantry. Choosing a grocery-based list of products as his primary concerns Widdicombe methodically deconstructs the re-branding of Golden Grahams cereal and examines Radox's relaxation claims with the precision of an OCD tax inspector. Enhanced by his deadpan demeanour he has the feel of a Edward Azcel on half a happy pill. Another one it would be a pleasure to see develop on the circuit.

As the judges left to deliberate on the winner last year's title holder Josh Widdicombe displayed the skill that plucked him out last year and how much more rounded a comic he's become since. His is a great line in mild exasperation with the minutiae of the world. Well into his set he paused to bemusedly note that the judges seemed to be taking their time in deliberating, but nevertheless trooped on with more material.

When the decision did come back all became clear as to why it was taking so long as there was no one winner but two (for the first time in the competition's history in fact). And so it was that Tom Rosenthal and Ben Target left wondering whether to split £1,000 their prize money or pool resources and go in on something nice they could share.

Review date: 20 Feb 2011
Reviewed by: Marissa Burgess

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