Funny Women final 2023 | Gig review from the Bloomsbury Theatre, London © Steve Ullathorne

Funny Women final 2023

Gig review from the Bloomsbury Theatre, London

If the closing speeches at this year’s Funny Women awards were even longer and more self-congratulatory than usual, perhaps that can be forgiven. Twenty years is a notable milestone, and there was much relevant talk of creating safe spaces for female comedians, given the recent headlines.

And while nobody sensible believes that ‘women aren’t funny’ – the overheard comment that led Lynne Parker to form this outfit – there are still plenty of clubs that are overwhelmingly male-dominated. Those bookers might want to look at some of this year’s finalists if (big ‘if’) they’re looking for strong female acts to redress the balance.

Opening act Blank Peng still counts the time she’s being performing stand-up in English rather than her native Mandarin in months. Some of her material is a little well-worn – everybody now jokes that the British Museum is full of stolen colonial loot – but she comes into her own when making the authoritarian, censorious Chinese regime the villains. And there’s a magnificent gag about the expectations of Asian parents. She has a delightful presence with a cheery innocence that conceals a cutting edge and while she displays some inexperience, her best lines are promising indeed.

Character act Charlie Vero-Martin performed as Persephone Gemstone, full of new-agey mumbo-jumbo as she sold us the idea of ‘the Magic of Yoni’. This sort of pretentious woo-woo is both easy and difficult to mock – can anything fictional be as hilariously bonkers as what Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is actually selling? But there are some nice touches, from the too-tight sports top, with a subtle touch of the cartoonish, through jabs at the wellness industry trivialising mental health and to the clichés of its privileged white-woman devotees that are all sold with an appealing playfulness.

As much as Vero-Martin was upbeat, Hannah Platt was down, with a set about her self-loathing and how she finds a fan base from her comedy among the suicidal, leading to the best gag of her set. Indeed all the talk about her misery led to quite a few sympathetic ‘awws’ in the audience as well as laughs at her bitter misanthropy. She’s got slightly lighter in her delivery of late, so the darker thoughts are presented relatively accessibly – and while she might hate herself, the judges didn’t, and awarded her second place.

Kate Cheka showed class from the start, with a fine, politically pointed gag about the billionaires who died in a Titanic-bound submarine. Every topical comic had a dubious-taste joke about it at the time, so it takes skills to find a new one, as she did.  She’s a smart operator, but wears it lightly, mixing opinionated stand-up with frank and relatable ‘what was I thinking?’-type personal anecdotes, all delivered with poise. And she has cojones. Jokes about midwestern America’s contradictory attitudes to abortion and gun control may be ten-a-penny, but at least she told hers in the god-fearing heartland. An impressive set all round, deservedly earned her the Funny Women title.

Nikola McMurtrie started with a charmingly melodic, if lyrically underpowered, song about how a 23andMe DNA test revealed her to be ethnically whiter than white. However, the more memorable half of her set was an interpretive dance to a misogynistic internet post about the female anatomy. It called to mind the ‘found poems’ Dave Gorman puts together from below-the-line online comments - although her version would surely have been more effective had the original post been revealed line-by-line in all its horrific, incel-like glory, rather than showing the whole thing on screen and allowing the audience to read ahead.

After the interval, Rachel Baker adopted a very performative approach to her delivery which proved a little distancing. After an unexpected ‘which celebrity I look like…’ openings, she embarked on tales of being a bit of an oddball idiot, though with a slight meanness to some of the material. The PowerPoint slide of the alleged nude picture she sent to her boyfriend will certainly stick in the mind, but her set seemed unsettled, not quite comfortable in a consistent persona.

Sascha LO’s set got off to a bumpy start as it wasn’t clear she was doing a character – or at least a hyper-exaggerated version of herself as a posh, self-centred ex-public school girl, desperate for attention and unaware of her own vast privilege. Her jokes are better than the response she got – though the balance shifted towards her as it became clear she wasn’t really this irritating – and there are appealing little flourishes in the routine, including affectations inspired by the way Nigella Lawson calls a microwave a ‘mee-crow-wah-vay’.

Shark mask on her head and growling menacingly at the audience, Su Mi certainly makes an entrance. There’s no joke to this beyond the sheer surreality of it, but that’s enough. Playful aggression runs through this powerhouse performance as she sticks two fingers up to naff expectations that an Asian woman should be quiet, demur and exotic, including a catchy R&B number about things to not say. Her rock chick vibe is compelling, and she might consider herself unlucky not to have made the podium tonight.

In contrast, Tal Davies is a natural storyteller, more gently reeling the audience into her tales of unusual pet ownership. The tale is a little slow to get going, especially given the limited time allowed for a competition set, but she wins the audience over with asides such as slut-shaming an insect and the near circularity of her central anecdote - as well as an innately affable, easy-going delivery.

Argentine stand-up Victoria Olsina is now based in Britain, and boy is she unhappy about it. A compellingly superior persona, she’s withering about the culture – and especially the people – of her new home with some audaciously rude lines. It may be an abusive relationship, but it’s a pleasure to be taunted this arrogant, ultra high-status comic. With only a tantalising glimpse of her real life, she seems to have much more to offer. And she took the silver tonight, which can go in her  in her trophy cabinet next to  the LGTBQ+ New Comedian of the Year gong she won last year. 

All the finalists

» Read about the Funny Women winners in other categories here

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Review date: 29 Sep 2023
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Bloomsbury Theatre

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