Comedy Hullabaloo Opening Gala

Note: This review is from 2013

Gig review by Steve Bennett

Comics have to play some dives in their line of work... but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre is not, as many point out tonight, one of them. More used to the comedy of Love's Labour’s Lost than the stand-up riff-raff, the venue has been pressed into service for Stratford-upon-Avon’s first Hullaballoo Comedy Festival weekend, produced by the people behind Underbelly.

The town has a not-undeserved reputation for being very middle-class; an image confirmed when host Hal Cruttenden asked who was local, and hands shot up – not a lairy ‘wa-hay!’ to be heard. He was the perfect choice as MC, as bourgeois as the audience; terribly embarrassed about his social status that pangs his liberal conscience about inequality, even if he’s far too comfortable in life to do anything about it. It’s an honesty about the situation of so many Guardian-reading Middle Englanders that gives his gags a punch beyond the astute class observations.

It turns out that playing here was once an ambition of Cruttenden’s, since he trained as an actor before the plan B of comedy took over. ‘Did they employ me at the RSC?,’ he splutters with privileged upset. ‘Did they fuck! So I'm going to desecrate their stage with knob jokes.’ Though in truth, his sharp, witty routine about his ineffectual parenting, his timidity compared to his Northern Irish wife, and flimsy grasp of current affairs was far more stylish than that.

Class plays a big role in Rob Beckett’s approach too, though from a very different perspective. He’s the epitome of the chipper working-class Londoner, even signing off with a cheery ‘be lucky’!

The Lewisham lad occupies similar comic territory to Micky Flanagan, which means he’s almost certain to come off the worse in any comparison. There are some strong jokes and accurate observations in his set, but also several that are more pedestrian, especially when it comes to his archetypal no-nonsense cab-driving dad. However Beckett has an appealing delivery – charismatic, confident and cheeky – that gets the very best out of the mixed grill he’s serving up.

Careering back up the social scale next, as Miles Jupp adopts an apologetic air of privilege, mumbling his ‘erms’ like a Hugh Grant parody. ‘I can play a clergyman, and that’s about it,’ he says of his image, which means he was perfect casting in Rev.

His hesitancy is in contrast to punchy Beckett, which means the laughs don’t roll quite so fast, but he knows how to fashion a delightful line on the end of what might appear to be floundering, revealing it all to be an act. His set mainly comprises of complaints about what shitholes – in his mind – he’s been forced to play before: Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds, Harlow, great swathes of England beyond the gated estate you assume him to live on. His incomprehension, and occasional withering derision, of a world beyond that, certainly amuses.

Danny Bhoy closed the first half, and takes us away from class, aside from mining a few easy Scottish stereotypes at the head of his set. His is broad, observational comedy – and in fixing it on to petty consumer experiences, he reflects the everyday niggles that many in the audience will have got wound up about: forget global problems, isn’t the Ticketmaster website annoying?

His routine mixes eloquently-put observations of the sort we might all have noticed with a resigned indignation, which reaches its peak in a hilarious story of the swanky restaurant which insisted he wear a jacket. You can see where the anecdote is heading almost from the start, but he strings a yarn expertly well.

After the break, the political comedy of Matt Forde that was, frankly, a bit dry. He is a former Westminster insider, and certainly knows his stuff about party machinations and the importance of image, which makes the big personality of Nigel Farage a more appealing bet than the bland and vague ‘try-not-to-offend-anyone’ vacillations of Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband.

But like many inside the Westminster village, he’s more obsessed with the process and personalities than what issues might arouse real passion. He’s smart enough to know he has to explain some of this, which leads to set-ups that are too long, and payoffs that seem a little contrived. What if Chris Huhne, when he was in jail, found himself in an episode of Gordon Ramsey’s Gordon Behind Bars?!

Still, he knows the techniques of oratory very well, and flaunts them in a reading from Winnie The Pooh in various speakers’ rhythms, which is a strong ending to a set that has the odd wry gag, but is otherwise largely for the wonks alone.

It’s telling that both Cruttenden and headliner Ed Byrne got a bigger laugh from political stories, straight afterwards: Cruttenden from making the subject more personal, about his own ill-informed reaction to the news, and Byrne for creating a harsh but vivid character assassination of Huhne’s ex-Vicky Pryce, rather than offering a more straightforward commentary on events.

As for the rest of his set, Byrne was clearly on form. The instructor at the speed-awareness course he was forced to go on clearly didn’t appreciate his mischief-making wit; but when it comes to his exasperations with life as a father of two very young children and the vasectomy his wife insists on, Byrne makes the material seem very real, and very funny in a routine that was over too soon.

Review date: 24 May 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Stratford-upon-Avon Courtyard Theatre

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