Bristol Comedy Garden, opening night

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Stuart Roberts

The inaugural Bristol Comedy Garden feels like it has been designed by someone who has spent many an evening in Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard - the site is littered with bijou food stalls, dining tables with tablecloths and kitsch, cutesy touches, making for a delightful welcome to a serious comedy event.

Just as delightfully welcoming is MC Dan Atkinson, coming on like a kind of affable Neanderthal man who has just read the GQ style pages, and an inspired choice for compere. Born in Bath (‘a bit like Bristol, but with more wankers’) he has that local knowledge and infectious enthusiasm which quickly endears him to the crowd, and it’s a pleasure to have him back after each act.

Make no mistake this is a mainstream comedy crowd and the appearance of Mock The Week regular Alun Cochrane is an inspired choice. He ‘doesn’t do proper jokes,’ we are told, but those expecting a Stewart Lee-like rambling monologue will be been sorely disappointed. Instead we are invited to a 45 minute trip into Alun’s mind, a place where the smallest morsels of life are played with, chewed over and hilariously regurgitated with a dry and wry wit. There are very few comedians who can talk about air fresheners for more than ten minutes and keep people caring. Nothing earth-shattering, but to expect as much is missing the point.

Pete Firman’s brand of magic and comedy was met with the sort of audience apathy usually reserved for, well, comedic magicians – a fact he alluded to himself, describing the crowd as ‘largely indifferent’. But it’s this self-awareness which ultimately warms us to him. The Tommy Cooper shtick should be done to death by now, but it’s hard not to be entertained, particularly as some of his magic is actually pretty good. The Carry-On style double entendres are old hat but he flies through them so quickly, a la Tim Vine, that you have no time to groan. Dependably entertaining.

Talking of dependable, here comes Russell Howard. This was a breeze for him really, the prodigal son returning to a crowd of the converted, it’s not a hard sell. In some ways this is a shame, the first time I saw Howard was in Edinburgh in around 2003 at a Late ‘n’ Live in which he tore a drunken heckler apart with stunning dexterity and consummate skill. The closest he got to a heckler this evening was a drunk girl whooping at a routine about drunk girls.

Still it was interesting to see him in his new role as comedy megastar. His act is full of populist references (Come Dine With Me, Embarrassing Bodies) so it’s easy to see why the public has fallen for him so easily and willingly. The only trouble is that he seems too aware of his comedy heartthrob status now. At one point he gets his torso out to screams of adulation from women in the audience. I think – and hope – that it’s to his embarrassment,

Howard is at his strongest regaling us with family stories, his turn of phrase is often a delight and an impromptu Q&A session masquerading as an encore shows he still has a sharp, improvisational wit – but at times he runs the risk of self-parody. Oh, and shouting loudly doesn’t necessarily make something funny.

But a strong but safe first night for the Bristol Comedy Garden, and it would be hard to find a punter who didn’t go home happy.

Review date: 22 Jul 2011
Reviewed by: Stuart Roberts

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