Musical Comedy Awards 2024 | Review of the final at London's Bloomsbury Theatre

Musical Comedy Awards 2024

Review of the final at London's Bloomsbury Theatre

Now in its 15th or 16th year (the video contradicted itself on that point) the Musical Comedy Awards were back in the Bloomsbury Theatre to showcase 12 finalists and a couple of bonus acts to a surprisingly hectic and rowdy audience.It was hosted by Nick Horseman, a musical comedian himself who wasn’t given an opportunity to do any music and largely relied on soliciting horse-based heckles from the crowd.

Opening finalist Emily Cairns was in fine voice, beginning the show in a Radio 4-adjacent zone that’s a familiar pitfall for musical comedians. Lightly satirical songs about modern foibles, trilled to a stage musical backing track can be too polite to hit home for anyone, and Cairns’ numbers about being told to smile by white van men and meeting drunk girls in the bathroom had an Intro To Feminism feel that didn’t quite raise the pulse, even though she sung them like Shirley Bassey.

Alex Camp operated in a similar space, although dressed like Troy Hawke and playing a guitar  – one of only a handful of acts to actually play their instrument live. His material about Ryanair and a song about admiring someone’s dog on a dating app came across as a little perfunctory.

Frank Friendzione was a new creation from Jay Bennett, back again after bringing a different character to the awards last year. Friendzione is the sixth member of NSync, dropped for being too horny, and performs loose, semi-improvisatory 1990s pop jams with the distorted masc energy of a drag king. He failed to really win over the crowd but there was something compellingly weird in the visual of a boyband member who was clearly about six months pregnant.

Sang Don Park was another interesting act who didn’t quite click this time. He has the swagger and authority of 'a fuckboi Kim Jong Un’ and mixes comedy with beatboxing, at which he’s very talented. The issues with beatboxing are a) you can’t make jokes while you’re doing it and b) it’s always diminishing returns after the first ten seconds, and Park didn’t surmount those problems, with a set that jerked a little awkwardly between the two disciplines. 

Smart and nervy, Ash Weir had strong material delivered in speak-singing to a pulsing electro backing, a bit like if The Streets was a neurotic queer woman. It can be hard to really get a crowd hooting and hollering for songs about veganism, but Weir came closer than most, and her manic pixie dreamgirl retort, Calm, Gnomey, Reality Woman was a smash.

Next up, full-time maths teacher Tom Towelling was the first act to really crack through in a big way. Opening with a heavily autotuned version of God Save the King, he’s not so much a singer or a musician per se, but weaves music into his set in a number of delightful, fruitful ways, including a fantastic routine where he tested the relative merits of drum n bass and metal as entrance music. 

His stage presence is minimal, but we’re dealing with a clear case of funny bones here, and a tone that stood out as fresh and contemporary. He took home the first place medal; an outcome that never seemed in doubt despite strong showings in the second half.

Speaking of fresh and contemporary, Baron Fortitude went hard in the other direction, landing in 2010 and the golden age of chap hop – a short-lived trend for ‘Victorian rapping’ capitalised on by such luminaries as Professor Elemental and Mr B, the Gentleman Rhymer. Deeply unfashionable as this style undoubtedly is, Fortitude is a capable practitioner with music hall chops, it’s just that his songs about tea and his Charles Dickens diss track feel trapped in an earlier time, both intentionally and unintentionally. 

After the interval, Anna Hale blew the roof off the place with a perfectly-judged keyboard-based set, goading an audience member into performing with her and then singing A Song About Me that didn’t allow said member to open their mouth. Her undeniable vocal pyrotechnics were combined with an uncommon control of gesture and crowd response, and she sailed into second place on the podium as well as winning the audience choice award.

Third place went to Jim Midge, the alter-ego of Luke Nixon who's  supposedly an ‘expert geologist’ at the Royal College of Wootton Bassett, and who used his seven minutes to weave a complex mythology based around his place of employment and his love for checkout girl Janine. 

There’s a heavy Tim Key influence here, only with songs instead of poems and red wine instead of cans, but that undersells the intricacy of the character and the strength of his offbeat narrative details. Also, like Tim Key stuffing the exploding can into his jacket, Midge has come up with one of the all-time great visual gags – watch out for this one.

Next, ‘anxious bisexual’ Lila Robirosa took a big gamble on her set by having no instrumental backing whatsoever, instead leading the group in an a cappella parody rendition of The Twelve Days Of Christmas, checking in on everyone she’d had sex with at uni. Good idea to get everyone involved in a singalong, but the lyrics didn’t quite scan – she badly needed a projection behind her so the audience could keep track of the words.

Penultimate finalist Ben Pollard was a genuine contender, primarily due to his intriguing and very funny stage persona: simultaneously gangly and cherubic, a wide-eyed naïf in a Jesus Is King T-shirt, he felt like he had just escaped a Cornish doomsday cult. His song lamenting the popularity of incest porn was one of the few moments in the show that felt a little transgressive.

Finally for the finalists, Amelia Bayler, probably the most established act in the competition, came down all the way from Glasgow only to have probably the worst night of any of them. Both her songs ran very long and mainly consisted of repeating the same phrase over and over, failing to develop beyond the initial premise and getting a muted reaction to round off the show. If the audience is visibly not loving it, raising the house lights is not the solution here.

Awarded best newcomer status even before the gig, The Queens of Cups performed a couple of Broadway-style numbers about arses, getting a trio of audience members on stage to perform as backing dancers and raising general discomfort in the room to heretofore unseen levels.

But headliners Fjord expertly smoothed things over with a cracking set of deadpan Norwegian europop. Their alternative Harry Potter musical is solid gold, moving through a range of musical homages and landing a great joke in every line, nicely capping off a night that was uneven but often thrilling in its introduction of exciting new talent.

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Review date: 14 Apr 2024
Reviewed by: Tim Harding
Reviewed at: Bloomsbury Theatre

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