Leicester Comedy Festival 2012 preview show

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

Tricky job, compiling a showcase spanning the full range of the comedy circuit to a largely conservative audience. They came for Tim Vine; they got Nick Helm.

It was a juxtaposition too severe – especially at the very start of the show – to lurch from compere Vine’s silly U-rated puns to the sinister, desperate aggression of a man who’s opening gambit is ‘good evening cocksuckers’, and gets harsher from there.

With a persona that mixes menace with Johnny Vegas-style insecurities, Helm is one of the more exciting recent additions to the circuit – but this was not, generally, his audience. Pockets of hearty laughter could not cover the more general consensus of discomfort.

It’s a shame he didn’t score more universally, as his distinctive act could have provided the opening gala of Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival with the moment of memorable, inspired lunacy it otherwise lacked, despite featuring a line-up of good stand-ups doing good work.

In that context, Vine made the show. His ‘dad jokes’, daft singalongs and cheesy prop gags benefited from being broken up into smaller sections. And his ‘pen behind the ear’ party trick is almost as pure as comedy gets, with its repeated attempts at the most futile of achievements. The optimistic determination induces so much empathy, that it’s a genuine triumph when he pulls it off. Maybe this is some profound comment on the Sisyphean nature of existence. But probably it isn’t.

Following Helm in the comedy lucky dip was sketch trio WitTank, who evoke that old cliché of the genre: ‘a little hit-and miss’. A quickie spoof on Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman got an immediate laugh, while skits on the origin of the baked bean and a fly’s-eye view of the world proved more esoteric. Their triumph, though, was their take on the death of Nelson, which saw Naz Osmanaglu crawling around the giant onstage letters spelling out the sponsor’s name begging sexual favours from his Hardy, in a greatly effective bit of extended, exaggerated improv.

More sober, intellectual musings from birthday boy Tom Rosenthal – which meant a more muted response to match. But while he’s no quickfire funnyman, he is a smart and quirky writer constantly seeking an original route. Such analytical approach means that even his take on Strictly Come Dancing or Destiny’s Child takes on a geekish air, but there are some fine lines in the mix.

Next, Vine introduced a special guest, the latest of the BBC’s entrepreneurial Dragons, Hilary Devey – so convincingly that he temporarily hoodwinked most of the audience. In the event, it was Vikki Stone pulling in a more than passable impression of the wide-shouldered businesswoman. Mimicry aside, there was little more to this set that a spirited, rasping song-and-dance number in character – but the music and energy is a fillip.

Chris McCausland was the revelation of the night. I have to admit previously seen him very much as a journeyman comedian, competent but unexciting, yet here he shone. The material remains rooted firmly in the everyday, from the ups and downs of relationships to the far-from accurate nicknames acquired by his drinking buddies, but it’s told with real skill, endearing charm and a perfect sense of timing. Combine this with the potency of recognition that’s worked so well for the likes of Michael McIntyre, and you have the constituents of a very assured mainstream comedian. The irony that such astute observational material comes from a blind bloke is something he’s previously joked about.

After the interval, and making his second appearance on this show in three years, Rob Rouse continued the domestic theme, with tales from the front-line of fatherhood. There’s not much that sets him apart from the myriad of other comics who mine this experience, but a affable demeanor allows him to put a little edge to his material. It’s a solid, rather then spectacular performance, but goes down well.

Ben Target, who won this festival’s ‘comedian of the year’ title last year, comes on in silly hat and brandishing two fire extinguishers. His heart seems in the right place in trying to create some sort of ‘happening’ on stage, but the execution is ill-thought through. He spent half of his ten minutes crowd-surfing his spindly frame across the auditorium, but the stunt was too calculated, deprived of any sense of excitement or comedy of the unlikely, as you might get when Mrs Barbara Nice (mild-mannered, middle-aged housewife) or Johnny Vegas (lard-arse) tries it. I suppose you could say he went over the audience’s head…

Stone then returned as herself for the second half of her set, which again displayed a strong voice and solid musicianship -– but was comically sparse. She spoke a lot about condoms and lube, mistakenly assuming the topic was funny enough not to need jokes, before employing that old cliché: a love song from the point of view of a disturbed stalker – in this case aimed at Phillip Schofield.

Jason Cook brought a friendly spark to the night, chatting away to the audience about love – the chosen topic of his festival show that he’s performing on Valentine’s Night. He’s always a strong, affable storyteller and ten minutes of good company went down very well, even if he offered more fast-paced banter than really sinking his teeth into the topic. But he’s naturally funny at badinage, so why not?

And to close, Keith Farnan, full of what he himself describes as ‘twinkly Irish bollocks’. His gags about the parlous state of the Irish economy, or the aphrodisiac nature of his accent, were far from revelatory, and the writing was similarly workmanlike. But the man is eminently watchable, providing a reassuringly soft and friendly conclusion to wipe away the memories of that nasty, angry Mr Helm at the start.

Review date: 16 Jan 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester De Montfort Hall

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