Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian Of The Year 2023 | Review of last night's final © Steve Ullathorne

Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian Of The Year 2023

Review of last night's final

It was a fairly open field that contested the 14th Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian Of The Year competition. Several of the finalists could easily have taken the crown, and all acquitted themselves decently, even if a few would benefit from more gig-hours to develop their act more.

That’s probably true of opening act Kathleen Hughes, a nifty joke-writer but one who doesn’t push herself much beyond safe territory, much of it about being partnered with a more successful man. A likeable, low-key presence, she’s best when exploring a childish, silly side and can find some novel punchlines in the familiar, although occasionally slips into a cliché, such a hack gag based on her bisexuality. 

As a refugee from a Russian mafia family, Maria Fedulova has far too much back story to pack into a five-minute set, making it feel like she’s only scratching the surface of what she has to say. She also talks more relatably about living in poverty, having married a fellow comedian. She flits about stylistically as much as she does with her content, jumping from fart gags to coldly cynical asides which she delivers almost accidentally. There’s a lot going on here, and it feels like she’ll have a great, darkly funny, tale to tell once she gets everything in order.

The mono-monikered Riggs struggled to connect with the audience, jumping around too many semi-surreal premises without ever quite bringing the room along with him. He, too, can be witheringly dismissive when it suits him - on the topic of school plays, for instance – or self-aware when talking about being a taciturn Northerner now living in touchy-feely Brighton. But some of the more peculiar trains of thought, such as his musings on Warhorse, seem jumbled.

If Sallyann Fellowes is also a flibbertigibbet – and she is – the oddness feels more natural, and comes packaged with oodles of slightly daft Cornish charm. There’s something of early-stage alternative comedy about her style, somewhere between Jenny Eclair and Hattie Hayridge, bonkers but content in her own little world.

She talks about being a high-functioning autistic queer person with ADHD – bread-and-butter for today’s comedy world – and the way she bundles it up is very appealing, as she puts forward off-kilter ideas that seem to make perfect sense to her in a delightful way. And it impressed judges (myself included) enough to secure her the top place and £1,000 prize.

Hugh Peacock at Leicester Square Theatre

Hugh Peacocke, above, couldn’t have got off to a better start with a line acknowledging his resemblance to host Mick Ferry, the audience lapping up the bespoke joke. It prefaced a solidly funny self-deprecating set covering his lack of prowess in the bedroom, some ill-judged wording in sex education and woefully misplaced dating advice. With his carefully measured delivery and dedication to proper punchlines, the assured Irishman took deservedly third place on the night.

Drawing on cultural differences, the slyly cheeky Maple Zuo delivers some wry lines about Chinese disregard for human rights, the disrespect she gets as a teacher in English schools, and British colonialism – swerving the usual wisdom on that latter subject with a witty and memorable metaphor. Her mother looms large over Zuo’s material – and her life, too – with her brusquely mean demeanour at odds with the calm zen you might expect from her Buddhist faith. Zuo is far more engaging and eager to please than her mum, making for a successful and quirky set.

Performing simply as JR, Jonathan Rippon sure knows how to hold a showtune, belting out a version of Padam Padam and Part Of Your World. However the writing’s tediously simple stuff, changing, for example the lyrics from ‘up where they run’ to ‘up where they bum’ in the lyrics of the latter – nothing any 12-year-old boy couldn’t do. Great voice, though.

From something we’ve seen hundreds of times before to something properly original, with Stephen Catling taking to the stage in a novelty dog’s head as Gregorian chants play, before leading the ‘congregation’ in a canine-based Holy Communion. The surrealism didn’t chime with everybody, but it acts as a playful icebreaker before he tries to describe his neurodiversity with props and a laptop full of sound effects.  Understandably, the weirdness is slightly awkwardly executed, but there’s fun to be had in watching him indulge his peculiarities.

Sam Roulston is a sometime improv comic who dates a juggler, so knows about being low status. The prepared material he presented tonight, however, was rather unrewarding, stilted in its writing and performance so nothing quite felt sincere. From buying legal weed in Canada, to the sexuality of Catholic priests to losing his virginity to a comically inappropriate soundtrack, it felt like a check-list of topics a stand-up might be expected to cover, with nothing quite gelling. And that’s before his weirdest, non-joke, finale about a lorry full of dildos.

Chirstian_Jegard at Leicester Square Theatre

Christian Jegard, above,  swaggers out with the slick confidence – and natty frilly-shirted dress sense – of a 1960s Vegas entertainer. But while he projects Mr Showbusiness, the gags come from the tragic, impoverished life behind the image. There are shades of Johnny Vegas in this approach, but where the famous comic brings every shred of emotional damage to the stage, Jegard is putting a glitzy shine on it all, climaxing with a jaunty song about throwing a very limited party in his bedsit. It’s a great persona, with some offbeat jokes alongside the glimpses of grim reality – and won Jegard the £500 silver prize. Well-deserved.

Much lower key was Marty Gleeson, another comedian who exudes the vibe of someone not quite of this world, with her dry, deadpan delivery almost disconcerting. Yet there’s an appealing silliness behind the tension this, and her deliberately awkward crowd work, creates, making this subtly wry Irishwoman another comic worth keeping an eye on as she’s definitely marching to her own beat.

Lauren Carroll is also promising, hinting at a difficult upbringing and confessing that being a waitress in her mid-twenties is not the career of champions. But her set is no wallow in self-pity - instead her situation informs a cynical, sometimes cruel, sense of humour which she can pull off because of her confidence as a performer and certainty of her persona. She can certainly hold an audience, even if some of the writing could be sharper, while those limited glimpses into her background  suggests darker personal material in her future.

Samira Banks also hints at a challenging past, with her father coming to the UK as a victim of human trafficking, which informs a joke about small-boat refugees which is definitely more bleak than funny. Meanwhile an opening gag about us all assuming she’s a bomber as she’s Middle Eastern was clumsy and old-hat. Ditto her analogy of British food being bland. However Banks – who won So You Think You’re Funny? at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – also has some much stronger material, especially a chunk on condoms being sold in different skin tones, and a nice line on PornHub categories, that needs a bit of finessing but is a fine comic premise.

Fourteenth and final contestant Leah Davis kept things fresh with a venue-specific riff on Leicester Square to kick off her set, segueing to wider material about the London Underground that shows a knack for amplifying a simple but astute observation into a longer routine. She’s an eloquent comic of controlled confidence, her well-spoken accent bringing a touch of butter-wouldn’t-melt class that works especially well when the material gets dirtier.  An assured act indeed.

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Review date: 4 Dec 2023
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

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