Leicester Comedy Festival Preview Show

Note: This review is from 2013

Review by Steve Bennett

How do you sum up a whole festival of 520 shows in just one night? It’s a puzzle organisers of the Leicester Comedy Festival always face when programming their preview show... made all the more tricky as the audience is a mix of hardcore stand-up devotees and the most casual of comedy-goers, lured by the annual sense of occasion and probably a face they recognise from the telly.

But any gala that starts with the old-school stylings of Jimmy Cricket and ends with the wild-haired surrealism of Tony Law can rightly said to have captured the full gamut of the eclectic comedy scene.

This is the second year that the full 17-day event has properly been titled Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival, thanks to the TV channel’s sponsorship, so it’s probably only right they have a Dave to introduce it. Mr Spikey faced an initially cold audience who didn’t warm up much as he indulged in some once-topical material about the German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who was in the news nearly a decade ago. Yet as he reappeared after each act, he found an increasingly cordial reception for both his personal anecdotes his collection of misprints and badly-phrased signs and song lyrics; no wonder he’s a regular on Countdown’s Dictionary Corner. He conveyed his disbelief with a cheery sarcasm that’s impossible not to warm to.

Cricket suffered from that initial tepid environment, though. When last Chortle saw him in the intimate confines of an Edinburgh Fringe venue, his cheesy silliness was infectious, but in the sizeable De Montfort Hall, it dissipated too thinly. For all his usual exhortations to ‘Come here’, the audience never really stepped into his world to savour the mix of corny old gags... and corny new ones. But it’s all delivered with an impish twinkle, even at 67, that keeps him loveable.

‘Corny’ isn’t an adjective you could attach to the ever-inventive Pat Cahill, the epitome of the confident but misguided British bloke, but in his case holding court on oddball matters such as the life cycle of the mayfly. His 15 minutes involved a fast-paced mish-mash of ideas and images, and the verbal gymnastics of his tricksy chat as much as guarantees a round of applause when he executes the conversational dismount. He offers a contradictory blast of mundane surrealism at such a head-spinning rate that he leaves the audience happy, yet struggling to catch up.

Matt Rees earned his place on this showcase after winning the Leicester Mercury Comedian Of The Year competition last year – but he doesn’t have a show at the festival. There was almost palpable disappointment when he announced that fact at the end of an endearing and witty routine about the main facets of his life: ‘junk food, alcohol and laziness’. Yet the deadpan, self-effacing Welshman has been industrious in writing a sparkling new routine about the embarrassment of finding a sex manual in his parents’ bedroom, which sits comfortably alongside the rest of his resigned material. His is a distinctive voice, and a funny one, and he delivered one of the stand-out sets of the night, despite his relative inexperience.

But a comedy stalwart took us to the interval, with the cult, mild-mannered musical offerings of John Shuttleworth, who perhaps overestimated the reach of his back catalogue as he struggled to get the crowd singing along to Yamaha-backed ‘hits’ such as Austin Ambassador Y-Reg. There’s delight in the detail of his tracks that cover not the great themes such as love and loss... but the more quotidian concerns of having two margarines on the go (‘it’s a nightmare scenario’). He’s quietly, wryly funny - ‘oof’ing away as he gets the wrong tempo button on his keyboard – but not quite the footstomping half-stopper that was probably planned.

Piff The Magic Dragon restarted proceedings with a thoroughly entertaining trick. He certainly stamps his idiosyncrasies on to the traditional variety turn, dressed in sparkly dragon suit and accompanied by his chihuahua Mr Piffles, who seems to have inherited the same world-weary sadness of his owner. The near-monotone delivery provides a comic juxtaposition to both the sparkle of the props and wardrobe... and to what proves to be a particularly impressive ‘pick a card’ routine.

Nothing so remarkable about Suzi Ruffell, unfortunately. She’s a wonderfully likeable personality - but that’s not the same as a being a great comic, and she falls into a vast category of amiable, attractive, fashionably-dressed, unthreateningly quirky, skinny-jeaned comics with dynamic performance but instantly forgettable material and barely-discernable jokes. That she’s female and gay isn’t enough of a point of difference as she chatted about being single, nights on the booze, and spotting the sprawling pubic hair of fellow gym users in the changing rooms, all of which is unexcitingly generic. She should use her great stage presence for better ends than this.

Gary Delaney, on the other hand, is all about the jokes. And how great they are: his densely-packed one-liners encompass the full range from the childishly silly to the devilishly dark, though there’s clearly never any evil intent behind any of them. The sharp writing is wrapped in a nicely self-effacing delivery, and he engages in chatty dialogue with the audience as he offers a running commentary on the gags and how they are received... though his fiddling with the water bottle, forever putting it down and picking it up, is a little distracting. Not that much can distract from the quality of the jokes.

Then came the hugely distinctive Tony Law, who’s almost all distraction, as he barks out non-sequiturs and asides on his own eccentric performance. He gets instant laughs from his odd rhythms and odder looks, and though his stream of consciousness can easily lose audiences along the way, he’s only ever one sharp turn away from another bit of nonsense that will allow them to climb on board again. I’ve seen plenty of gigs where he’s got more laughs than this, but when he left the stage after his ‘two elephants walk into a bar...’ joke, there was a definite sense that the audience wanted more. Which is presumably the very point of a preview show.

Before that sense could settle, though, came the announcement of a surprise finale, courtesy of The Greatest Show On Legs. And it surely did come as a surprise to most as Pat Cahill, Martin Soan and Bob Slayer took to the stage with nought but party decorations to cover their modesty, ready to perform the hilarious balloon dance made not-quite-famous by the late Malcolm Hardee.

As if this wasn’t anarchic enough, the naked Slayer then scurried through the auditorium, and even on to the balcony ledge, some 20ft above the ground, no doubt giving some health and safety officer a stress ulcer in the process. A wonderfully unpredictable end to the the night to serve as a reminder that sometimes comedy is as much about cocking a snook at conformity as it is about well-crafted jokes.

Review date: 13 Jan 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester De Montfort Hall

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