Laughing Boy New Act Of The Year 2011

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Another day, another new act competition... this one run by a venue linked to the formidable Off The Kerb agency, which makes the exposure all the more valuable. The company promise a run of paid gigs for the winner, who also gets a slot a the Latitude festival.

Unlike most, the Laughing Boy contest has no heats, with this line-up selected from those who impressed in online clips. Live is a different matter, though, so we could be in for anything here...

Indeed, opening act Dominic Elliot Spencer struggled to get much laughter flowing, though he's been around for at least a couple of years. ‘You've a lovely smile,’ he describes a patronising work colleague telling him, ‘You could get away with anything.’ Well, not quite... sweet likeability will get you so far in stand-up, but D.E.S. had only the slightest of material to back it up, based on formulaic payoffs, black stereotypes he did little with, and slight anecdotes about the likes of health and safety rules that lack interest. Shame, as he seems such a nice boy, with an infectious nervous laugh.

Next up, Ian Smith, a frequent competition finalist who seems destined to be always the bridesmaid, never the bride. As, indeed, it proved tonight as he secured the No 2 position. He's got some lovely, distinctive material and, crucially, an understated confidence which means he can deconstruct his set and ironically commentate on the reaction without it seeming too self-satisfied – a poise beautifully demonstrated when a glass clattered to the ground as he reached the climax of his set, and he incorporated it seamlessly. With his delightfully offbeat writing, he displays a mastery of phrasing, and summons up some fine comic images. A talent, for sure.

Cork-born Andrew Ryan comes with almost stereotypical quantities of lilting Irish charm. He's got some great gags about Twitter - so often a comedy graveyard - finding a girlfriend and office oneupmanship, though as he moved on to tales of his ditzy Ma and paying  off a credit card, his writing lost focus, leading to amiable but comically underpowered chit-chat. But he's the sort of act who you can so easily listen to, which is a very strong grounding for a career in comedy.

Suzi Ruffell owns the stage so convincingly that she could take out a mortgage on it. But she doesn’t fully exploit that charm and confidence, with a set that relies on such cliches as talking like a street youf or lines like ‘seems a bit rapey’ to get laughs. Her personality covers a lot of the gaps in he material, but her self-centred anecdotes need more embellishments – and certainly more punchlines – to shine.

Punchlines are not something Jimmy Bird lacks; his set packs them in as tightly as he can muster. In that way, he’s like an old-school comic: never mind the stories, just cut to the gags – a straightforward approach that ensures a near bullet-proof set. Some of the writing could do with work, such as his story of taking a girl home that involves an uncharacteristic amount of groundwork for little reward, but there’s flair to many of the ideas, from unusual baby names to his bleakly funny suggestions for more realistic children’s TV shows. It’s a line of thought that could be formulaic, but that he executes expertly. He got the loudest reaction of the night – thanks to the army of supporters he brought, but was nonetheless an impressive act and a popular winner.

It’s a tough call going into comedy with a name like Richard Pryer, impossible to google accurately if you want to find out more, and he’s certainly not going to want to invite comparisons with his legendary near-namesake. This Pryer’s dry delivery did nothing to energise the room, leaving his pedestrian material to wither and die. He talks a lot about his boring life, but he seemed boring himself, as he offers nothing new on the likes of getting drunk, surfing internet porn and TV chefs. He has an occasionally charming turn of phrase, but certainly not enough to build a career on, and I could swear he overran by quite some margin. But perhaps it only felt that way.

The sweetly out-of-his-depth Jared Hardy struggled, too, though there is some potential in his writing. However, he seems too studied in the techniques of quirky stand-up, which don’t quite sit comfortably with him. All the deliberate ‘uummms’ and ‘aaaahs’, the well-practised gestures and the giggles at his own jokes appear affected, and actually serve to dent the audience’s confidence that he knows what he’s doing, especially as he takes too long to establish his credentials. You can detect traces of other comedians in some of his stuff – the comforting, cheerful weirdness of his native Bristol, say, seems very similar in tone to Russell Howard, but without the assuredness. There is nonetheless something here, it’s just going to take a lot of winkling out.

Ryan McDonnell’s the exact opposite, a forceful, leave-no-pauses onslaught in his Ulster accent gives the impression this is a no-nonsense comic. Yet as he rattles through his set, leaping from one briskly-covered topic to the next without segueway, it soon becomes apparent that, actually, the material is seriously lacking. Airport security, masturbation, encountering a naked guy in the gym changing rooms – all the familiar staples of modern stand-up are there, but with no new angles or great jokes to make it interesting. He has the trappings of a deft club comic able to tackle any situation but he is exposed by the absence of though that’s gone into his flimsy set. He’s all front, with nothing behind it.

So as mixed a bag as any collection of newer acts; but winner Bird - and a few of the others – show plenty of promise.

Review date: 16 Jun 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: City Arts & Music Project

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