English Comedian Of The Year 2016 Final | Final reviewed by Steve Bennett at the Udderbelly

English Comedian Of The Year 2016 Final

Note: This review is from 2016

Final reviewed by Steve Bennett at the Udderbelly

Sometimes at a comedy gig, the stars align, the atmosphere is febrile and fertile, and the audience, infused by some ethereal energy, ride high on a euphoric wave of laughter.

The English Comedian Of The Year final was not that gig. Despite a sold-out Udderbelly on London’s South Bank, the atmosphere seemed muted, the ten-minute routines feeling longer, the alchemy elusive. It was certainly not for the want of any effort by compere Andrew Maxwell, who can rarely be accused of underpowering a performance, but the contestants had their work cut out in building any sort of momentum.

Luckily this is a competition not confined to new acts, so many of the performers could draw on a deep well of comedy circuit experience to wring out the laughs - but this would have been far from an effortless gig for any of them.

In the end, it was a relative rookie who triumphed – and will now be gracing next year’s Adelaide and Perth festivals down under on the back of his achievement. Josh Pugh, winner of a couple of new act awards in the Midlands last year, took the title for a set packed full of short, quirky jokes from a peculiarly offbeat mind. He’s an excellent writer of one- and two-liners, with an askew sense of humour in both set-ups and reveals, immediately cutting a different figure by way of wearing a lanyard on stage. He admits he ‘doesn’t really stick to a theme’, but his relative absurdity is theme enough, at least in a shorter set such as this.

Pugh was third on the bill, following Rachel Fairburn and Nina Gilligan, broadly similar acts in being Northern women bringing a homespun charm to bigger personal issues: mental health in Fairburn’s case and body image and ageing in Gilligan’s

Habitual worrier Fairburn poured scorn on people who are ‘a little bit OCD’ compared to her genuine troubles before confessing to an obsession with serial killers and, possibly even more worrying, a strange crush on George Osbourne. It’s affable, interesting self-analysis but – a couple of neat callbacks notwithstanding – weaker on punchlines.

Gilligan was more gag-driven, with self-deprecating quips about her weight, being ‘peri-menopausal’ and shopping for supermarket bargains on a budget. She didn’t quite draw us into her world, with gags that were efficient without being too revealing. It felt like she played it safe, but that’s never going to be too interesting.

After Pugh came the more straightforward anecdotal stand-up of Chris McCausland, with a circuit-honed set that meant he never dwelt too much on any one topic from the start, getting in and out quickly. Then he settled into conversational routines about attending ante-natal classes and being a blind parent, which, like so many routines tonight never really soared, despite a likeable natural wit. It’s a more than serviceable ten minutes, but didn’t seem to rise to the occasion that a competition final in a packed venue demands.

Eddy Brimson is another club stalwart with a lean routine, spinning off from the jokes about the first impression he makes, being a shaven-headed working-class man with what could only be described as a ‘resting thug face’. The tight rhythms of the delivery make it near-bulletproof as he rattled into a brisk exchange with a chugger raising money for charity, although the super-tight focus was lost in the home straight with easy jibes at fat kids and Western privilege, which he claimed were politically potent, but weren’t really. Delivery is king, though, and he brought some life into the giant tent, and took out of it the night’s bronze medal.

Joby Megeean’s set involved slagging off fellow comedian Carl Hutchinson for not being able remember his name – a minor social faux pas from somebody most the audience would never have heard of. If the joke was that he was making a mountain out of a molehill, that wasn’t successfully conveyed, and instead it just seemed a petty and trivial in-joke, albeit with a decent payoff. The second part of ukulele-wielding Megeean’s routine, about being teased by bullies for having a ‘gay card’ at school was equally over-worked (and Carl Donnelly once had a better chunk on the same topic). So sadly nothing, on this basis of this outing at least, made McGeehan a name to remember. Hutchinson’s in the clear..

For lessons in how to make a personal gripe more universal, McGeehan need look no further than the next act, Nick Page, who elevated his run-ins with North Gloucestershire District Council’s planning department into an heroic fight against injustice. He does griping very well, distilling irritants into brisk, bitter complaints whether as large as the Brexit vote or as small as the everyday grumbles of the middle-aged. The Schrodinger’s Cat section was more dubious, but Page packed the gags into a rapid-fire set, delivered irresistibly boldly, securing him a well-deserved silver.

More experience came from Gordon Southern, though his use of an iPad as a sound board with ‘fun fact’ jingles and backing tracks for his raps is a more recent departure. He boasts that his attempts at hip-hop are ‘mercifully short’, but the brisk rhymes  do hit home, even if some of the other tech seemed more gimmicky. The set’s a deliberate scattergun mess, with all sorts of ideas thrown into the mix, from his Scottish ancestry to an excellent reason why suitcases weren’t always on wheels. Although always fun, Southern hasn’t quite found a way to navigate a steady course through the jumble yet, but it’s an interesting turn of events from a circuit veteran.

Adam Rowe, like a few others before him, struggled to turn affable anecdote into killer material, even if the story about his lazy eye leading him to be mistaken for dead held the interest. The other tale, about arguing with his girlfriend after coming home drunk, was less distinctive, even if he has acquired the rhythms of a stand-up storyteller. And that he did the exact same joke about someone not having shed their baby weight that Gilligan had done earlier showed he was sometimes working along a generic train of thought.

Ian Smith was something of a victim to the difficult room, despite having some wonderfully inventive and well put-together material. He has a nice way of explaining peculiarities and making semi-surreal ideas seem almost credible, which often have a loose foundation in everyday experiences such as picking up a parcel from a Post Office depot. Anyone doing routines about dandelion and burdock is definitely showing a creative mind of their own, and this accessible absurdist was unlucky not to be placed.

Not 24 hours before tonight’s gig, Joe Bor won Leicester Square Theatre’s Old Comedian of the Year title as his posh alter-ego Jasper Cromwell-Jones. The wry gags about his privilege were as enjoyable as ever tonight, although they didn’t quite resonate quite as strongly as the previously, and some of the more off-topic gags shoehorned into his narrative seemed to knock the artifice slightly off-balance. However, he remains a fine comic creation with a rucksack full of sharp jokes.

Closing what seemed like a very long night was Tom Toal, who had the added disadvantage of music striking up outside, profusely bleeding noise into the tent. ‘I’m the only act with a soundtrack,’ he sardonically noted. His is a set that demands attention (as, indeed, most do), but with attention levels drooping, his ironic nicknames for himself didn’t fire –  and the long routine about teasing internet headlines, Buzzfeed-style, proved too prolonged for its payoff. He perhaps needs a few more techniques in his arsenal to deal with less-than-ideal environments, or more variety of routines to be able to change tone or direction. But it’s hard to imagine many comics succeeding in this graveyard slot.

Review date: 5 Jul 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Underbelly Festival

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