April Fool for Mencap

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Another week, another benefit. After Comic Relief and the Royal Albert Hall’s Teenage Cancer Trust gig, and amid a smattering of post-earthquake fundraisers (Russell Howard headlines a biggie at London’s Lyric Theatre on the 11th), comes this April Fool gig for Mencap, boasting such a hugely impressive line-up that they could surely have filled the 3,000-capacity Hammersmith Apollo several times over.

Jo Brand, with her background in mental health, was the obvious choice of host, and used her expertise to clarify the difference between learning difficulties, where Mencap works, and mental illness in the only momentary bit of earnestness of the night. More importantly, she is increasingly adopting the role of comedy’s matron, an unflappable rock of stability who, knows there’s a job to be done, so will damn well get on and do it as no one else can be trusted to. She suffers no nonsense in life, or on stage, batting away the ironic wolf-whistles with her world-weary shrug.

The compering duties were occasionally taken up by with an under-used Miranda Hart, perhaps showing the charity can attract more big names than it quite knows what to do with. Still, it’s always nice to see her.

First full act of the night was the seemingly ubiquitous Jack Whitehall, turned out uncharacteristically smartly in a tailored suit. He mixed some topical issues, including the Midsomer Murders race row, with broader observational material such as his nostalgia for the simpler times of the Nokia 3310 mobile phone. Whitehall often comes across as a vessel for effective but impersonal gags that could be performed by almost anybody, and tonight was not exception. He performs flawlessly, and the writing is strong - although nothing in his set defines him as an individual.

The increasingly animated Chris Addison, however, has his own style, exaggerating simple remarks into cascading rapids of indignant fury. The impracticality of Ugg boots is often commented on, for example, but in his resolutely middle-class grouchiness, the rant is irresistibly impassioned; the fact that its trigger is so trivial making it all the more amusing. Nor is it only a tour de force of passion; the Thick Of It star has an eye for hilarious juxtaposition, as his Pope routine incontrovertibly proves.

Next, Miranda introduced her Hyperdrive co-star Kevin Eldon, who initially baffled the audience with his fragmented, surreal nonsense, as he deliberately struggled to find a coherent catchphrase and jiggled about with Cleesian crazy legs in a segment that perhaps belied his origins as an actor rather than a naturalistic stand-up. Even by the end of his offbeat set, I’m not convinced most knew what to make of him, although his comic songs gave more than enough inventive wit to relate to, whether in the form of the French Proclaimers or the witty, and beautifully executed, My CDs Jump.

Another of Miranda’s screen colleagues, next with Not Going Out’s Lee Mack and his supercharged Lancastrian charm. He blasted through such proven-to-be-effective routines as applying cinema’s ‘strong language’ warnings to real life, the Scouse dialect, or one-armed CBBC presenter Cerrie Burnell. Everything’s a joke to Mack – which, counterintuitively, isn’t a universal a approach in comedy these days – but it gives his routine an unprepossessing cherry charm, with a sackful of gags to match. It’s a grand combination, which made for a hugely entertaining turn.

After Catherine Tate literally poked her head around the stage flaps – why? – came the first genuine arena-filler of the night, in the bullet-headed form of Al Murray. The cracking pace of his audience banter, combined with the familiarity of his character which means we instantly know his views on, say, the male textiles teacher he unearths, makes this Knockabout fun. His attempts to get the theatre involved in a shoutalong rendition on Incy Wincy Spider had mixed results, but the sight of a grown man dancing so emphatically, like a Thunderbirds puppet controlled by a two-year-old, is inherently uproarious.

Ms Tate returned for her proper turn at the start of part two, reprising the decade-old sketch where her favourite Nan character originated. It was from Lee Mack’s Perrier-nominated Edinburgh show, so with her old companion also on hand to provide her senile husband, this was an interesting slice of comic nostalgia. In this version, there’s hints of a role reversal, with Mack’s pensioner acting like an archetypal ‘old woman’ dithering over a familiar face on TV, while the wife has more masculine traits of swearing and vicious impatience.

Another treat next as Harry Hill made a rare return to the live comedy arena – and it’s marvellous to have him back, with his disjointed surrealism adding to his inventive, eccentric jokes – rather than being a fig leaf to conceal their absence. The style has become familiar, but there’s still plenty of invention in the writing, while his affectation of singing random song lyrics is made all the funnier given the overtly sexual content of the modern hits he chooses seems so out of place coming from a big-collared loon. Hopefully this is a precursor to more.

Stewart Francis, though perhaps not as well known as most of the comics on this bill, nonetheless proved a hit with his collection of impeccable one-liners, delivered with zen-like poise. His set offered a mix of old and new, but his well-honed gags bear repeated listening, while there’s certainly some prime contenders for future classics among the freshly-minted material. A class act.

Lucy Porter claimed this was her first night on stage since becoming a mum, and if true, would explain why much of her material about the romance going out of her relationship and the trails of motherhood seemed underpowered. Like many of her recent shows, it’s Porter’s delightful, elfin charm that ensures our attention, while the laughs need beefing up – and condensing. There are long build-ups to mid-level punchlines here. Still, she left us on her tried-and-tested routine about bank security questions than ensured she exited on a high.

So who was to be the headliner among the headliners? Step forward Sean Lock, with his appealing mix of insight, silliness and restrained performance; nicely building up a routine from a simple observation about the suitability of pirates as children’s icon, though to delightfully-expressed jibes at Jordan’s expense and on to a brilliantly imagined flight of fancy in which Madonna becomes (or is) a grotesque, sexually voracious predator, which he acts out with disturbing conviction. Don’t have nightmares.

He proved fine end to a fine night, the likes of which we won’t see until… well, the next star-heavy benefit. They’re a generous lot, comics.

Review date: 4 Apr 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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