Chortle Student Comedy Award final 2021 | Gig review by Steve Bennett
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Chortle Student Comedy Award final 2021

Gig review by Steve Bennett

This has not been a good year to be a student, or to be a comedian - and twice as challenging to be both.

Yet you would never have guessed there had been such unprecedented disruption from the final of the Chortle Student Comedy Award on Monday night, with the young acts providing as strong a line-up as ever.

First out the gate, Sam Williams set a high bar, with a tight, well-constructed set about his bland name, shit-hole of a home town, Maidenhead, and shoddy student digs. However it’s not the subject matter of his set that impresses, but the precision of the observations and a way of thinking that gives them an inventive twist beyond the obvious and creates some vivid mental images.

He has a relaxed and assured presence and a well-honed sense of timing that instils confidence (and being a good-looking chap will do him no harm either). This complete package secured him the runners-up garland; despite the uncoveted opening slot.

Scott Redmond cut quite the figure, taking to the stage in a light plum jacket with Butterfly prints and brandishing a couple of one-liners partway between cheesy dad joke and inspired wordplay. They are merely icebreakers, however, for the lion’s share of his set which explores his Romany Gypsy heritage and eating disorders.

The former provides the most interesting fodder, as it’s a much-maligned group we don’t hear much from. With producers of a forthcoming film about his community deciding to cast old Harrovian Benedict Cumberbatch as a bare-knuckle fighter, the jokes probably write themselves. Still, it’s rewarding to have such blind spots mocked first-hand, and with good-natured incredulity rather than outrage.

Identity is the cornerstone of Sharon Wanjohi’s routine, too, providing a vantage point to take potshots at men and white folk. The underlying attitude may often be pointed, but it’s delivered in a charming, underplayed way, sweet and sour together.

Her writing’s inconsistent, but at its best – such as the winningly non-conformist idea of ‘black privilege’ – there are strong ideas with reams of potential.

Andy Bucks is a classy writer, able to make a fantastic running joke out of his love of Gmail and always deploying the perfect comedy word. He’s unapologetically smart, too, as he leans into his nerdiness with surely the best - if not only - joke about Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume on the circuit.

His closing routine, about witnessing an animal fight on YouTube, is a wonderfully exaggerated reaction – although its execution is too evocative of a classic James Acaster bit to be as distinctive as it deserved to be,

Charlotte Cropper has a delightfully chipper presence, but her cheery routine never quite gelled. She couldn’t convince the audience to buy into her surname’s links with failure, for instance, or being one letter away from ‘crapper’.

Considering the prospect that she is about to screw her life up as she enters her 20s, since that’s what people do, is a strong idea, but underdeveloped. For starters, she didn’t convey enough sense of whether she was fearing that future or embracing it. Hopefully sharper writing will emerge to underpin her thoroughly engaging presence.

Hamish Duff is an odd fish. His act comprises the most contrived, cringeworthy puns, often hinging on obscure international news stories. A few are funny in their own right, but mostly it’s a stubborn combination of battering the language in ways it doesn’t want to go and wilfully obtuse reference points.

In delivering these awkward jokes, he metaphorically holds his nose about how awful they are, while simultaneously appearing quite pleased with himself over the wordplay. It’s this peculiar reaction that elicits the laughs, and it’s entirely ambiguous whether that was his intention or not. The upshot is a set with a strong anti-comedy vibe, laughing at how bad some of it is.

Finally for the first half, Joe Kent-Walters bounds onto the stage as the pretentious, camp and bonkers thespian Eduardo Soliloquy, delivering a portentous address about the importance and majesty of theatre.

The character owes a big debt to the pompous intensity of Rik Mayall and lesser ones to the playful surrealism of Vic and Bob and the unbridled enthusiasm of Colin Hoult’s gushing, luvvie alter-ego, Anna Mann.

Kent-Walters immerses himself in a suitably over-the-top performance – an act like this is only ever going to succeed through sheer commitment – and proves a mesmerising and unpredictable presence. But there are good jokes and an awful lot of inventive stupidity behind the daft antics.

Such a mad act has the potential to divide a room, but for invention and flair, he took the gold tonight.

After the interval, Isaac Kean flitted across a range of topics, with some excellent lines and an expert delivery, yet without leaving an especially strong sense of who he was.

There are straight one-liners, some ‘poor me’ shtick about finding out his girlfriend was unfaithful, mention of his drug-addicted dad that was skated over, some interesting recollections of teaching English in China and a breakdown of the phrase ‘I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire’, which isn’t as good a Richard Herring’s take on the same. Otherwise, all solid routines peppered with great jokes that would just benefit from little more personal soul.

A proudly working-class Hull girl, Grace Sanders has an appealingly spiky attitude to the middle classes, the political elite and Londoners in general - and the circuit probably needs more voices like that. But her frustrations are often muted, and don’t naturally fit with other material, such as absurd facts from the history of science.

It’s a question of finding more focus and flow in her writing and performance – avoiding a tangle of unnecessary detail and converting justifiable belligerence into coherent routines and more acerbic punchlines.

Omar Badawy, on the other hand, is already a consummate pro. He discusses the Muslim stereotypes he had to deal with on moving from Egypt to Wales with originality and dry wit. The slick routine boasts distinctive jokes and is delivered with a winning poise and calmness.

He won the So You Think You’re Funny? talent hunt in Edinburgh last month and already has all the trappings of an established pro. In many years, he’d have been a shoo-in for the Chortle title.

Also unlucky to miss out on a placement was George Tothill, a skilled joke craftsman with a witty take on everyday homophobia and a couple of to-die-for punchlines about failed lockdown ambitions and Monsieur Mangetout, the French entertainer who ate an entire 747. His beta-male persona belies alpha-level writing of the sort that would secure him a fruitful career in comedy.

And he’s certainly not the only one of this line-up who can look forward to that.

Review date: 22 Sep 2021
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Bloomsbury Theatre

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