Brighton Festival Gala 2011

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Because it’s backed by uber-agent Addison Cresswell of Off The Kerb, the gala launching the Brighton Comedy Festival offers an embarrassment of riches, with about half the line-up more than capable of filling the city’s 2,000-seater Dome on the strength of their own name alone. So it’s a guaranteed full house, ensuring that the Sussex Beacon, the HIV charity benefiting from the show, have their coffers nicely swelled.

The phrases ‘charity benefit’ and ‘hosted by Jo Brand’ go together like ‘Liam Fox’ and ‘dodgy as hell’, and she was on jolly form in the MC’s role tonight. No surprise that her contributions largely comprise jibes at her husband’s expense and the repetition of a few sexist and sizist heckles that she’s been subject to over the years – but the tongue-in-cheek undertow to her apparently morose exterior becomes more apparent the more familiar her shtick becomes. Plus the on-off nature of compering means there’s no need for variety, just a familiar face between the acts and a confident banter to move things along. Both boxes firmly ticked here.

Opening was Adam Hills, who started with a response to an American’s criticism that there were few black faces in his Australian homeland, which seemed to take a defensive stance on a parochial argument few in Brighton might care about. But this effortlessly warm comedian quickly retired to more fertile ground with his tried-and-tested crowd work, with a karaoke-like skip through the decades, followed by a cheery salute to gay icons.

Mark Watson is the ultimate low-status stand-up, keen to give off almost no obvious signal that he knows what on earth he’s doing. But although he shuns alpha-male control for self-conscious, self-deprecating blether, his circuitous routines about being a new dad give rise to plenty of hearty laughs – giving lie to the impression of incompetence his expectation-lowering modesty might project.

Andi Osho is Watson’s polar opposite, with a lot more charisma, certainty and cool in her slick delivery, although the content is a bit more hit-and-miss, thanks to an outlook that tends to play things safe on topics such as wondering when it’s OK to first fart in front of a partner, or how a tricky poo is like going into labour. That said, she often has a witty way of putting things or a deft twist of phrase to inject a little fun into the proceedings, even if she’s not going anyplace new.

A musical blast to end the first half with Rob Broderick’s improv hip-hop outfit Abandoman, here backed with a drummer and rhythm section to provide more oomph. After their signature ‘what’s in your pocket?’ piece of quick-thinking chicanery, they were joined by recent album chart-topper Ed Sheeran, who put in a decent effort, but ultimately served to prove that making up these rhymes is harder than it looks, requiring nightly practice.

Phil Nichol opened the second half. Usually for such occasions he has an established set piece, stretching his T-shirt above his head and clumping around the stage like a backwards redneck. Not tonight, though, as he instead performed a newer routine in which he got to showcase his comedy accents, as well as his manic performance skills, before topping his set with the anti-PC song You Can’t Say That To Me. Chances are he didn’t leave a huge impact on the audience on such an illustrious bill, but he certainly did his job of entertaining.

New material, too, from Jack Dee, who’s likely to be hitting the road next year for his first tour in three years. Not that Mr Sunshine has lost any of his bite, sarcasm or relevancy since he’s been away, with this experienced old hand opening his set with the edgiest line of the night, about Steve Jobs’s death. Then his sneery, stinging disdain was unleashed at old people, new parents and twitterers to name but three vast groups. But his misery is, as always, our pleasure, and the next tour should be a doozy, if this is any indication.

Dee is a tough act to follow, but Simon Evans – possibly the only comedian with even greater reserves of supercilious contempt – was equal to the task. His ‘Englishman, Welshman and Pakistani’ set-up puts a room on edge, and he manipulates that discomfort with aplomb. It’s amazing what a knowing, arrogant demeanour can do to what’s essentially a pub joke, proving it really is the way you tell ’em. A few local references from this Hove-based act added to the fun of his deliciously patronising set.

From a comic who believes he’s top of the social tree back down to one who’s rummaging in the undergrowth, with the bitterly self-deprecating Andrew Lawrence. His angsty set leant a little heavy on the ginger jokes, but the scorn for humanity spawned from his own fetid existence creates a mean, Dickensian wit, full of rich, spiteful language.

Worthy headliner was Sean Lock, with a few uniquely oblique observations with the weary acceptance of a bloke who thinks he’s seen it all. There are some insightful lines on everything from Special Brew to swearing in tabloid newspapers... but his inventive piece de resistance, depicting Madonna as a terrifying sexual predator, is the stuff of nightmares. It’s very funny, but the image may haunt you long after the gig is over.

Lock, in common with many of these gala stars, aren’t performing elsewhere in the festival while Nichol and Hills were doubling up with their own shows round the corner. So this opener serves not so much a taster of things to come, but as a star-studded advert that, hopefully, will encourage the audience to book something more adventurous before the festival leaves town on the 22nd.

Review date: 9 Oct 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Brighton Dome

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