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Student comedy awards 2006

Heat 1: London Docklands

This probably shouldn’t be said about an event with ‘Chortle’ in its very title, but for honesty’s sake, let’s put on record that the opening heat of this year’s national student award was simply not a good gig.

Despite being a regular comedy venue, the bar at the University of East London’s Docklands campus is just not cut out for stand-up: one room shared between those who come to watch the show, and those who are more interested in playing pool, chatting with friends or getting obscenely drunk, taking their shirt off and running into the ladies’ loos. Honestly.

Oh, and then the microphone started showing a reluctance to amplify, too.

Yet despite all this, every one of the first batch of student comics showed remarkable resilience in the face of this potentially hostile situation, taking command of those who had come to see the show and blasting through with their material. Their relative inexperience was not an issue in this most difficult of rooms.

First up was James McPhun, an A-level student and thus younger than the crowd he had to deal with. His very first gig was in the competition last year, and he’s continued to develop a confident stage presence over the intervening 12 months. Material, too, is solid – if lacking that certain edge that might only come from life experience – and he’s unafraid to introduce new material particular to the venue. Most of all, though, he looks and sounds like a comic – which is an impressive achievement so young.

Ditto for second-year Cambridge student Luke Roberts, who got his quirky set off to an impressive start, with some silly, inventive nonsense about literally ‘making’ friends and some earnest deconstruction of rock and roll lyrics. He lost his way a bit as the set progressed, but there’s certainly the makings of an imaginative thinker here.

Alex Hodgson was, perhaps, the comic who struggled most in this environment, with a subdued, conversational style ill-equipped to be heard over the background din. The material, too, needed to be punchier; for example a lengthy routine about an ailing patient in hospital was quietly wry when it needed a pay-off line.

The gods were against Chris Martin, with the microphone finally giving up the ghost early into his set. But those who strained to hear him were well rewarded with a strong, imaginative set. Yes, he’s got the same name as the Coldplay lead singer, but that coincidence is quickly despatched, opening the way for a more distinctive discourse on people’s names and beyond. Tight, well structured, funny and original – the night’s clear winner on every count.

Back with a new microphone, chatty Alice Fisher had confidence a-plenty, possibly down to her drama studies, but nothing much to apply it too. Instead, she tells us about her frustrations in dealing with her mobile phone company and how their billing error plunged her into unauthorised overdraft, incurring more fees. Save it for Watchdog. To be a stand-up routine this needed more attitude and more jokes – which is a shame because Fisher did have a certain charm.

A middle-class student teacher forced by circumstance to holler poetry probably wasn’t what this audience wanted, which certainly explains why Will Voelcker struggled. His set’s something of a mixed bag – while we probably don’t want to hear a verse about diarrhoea, other segments hinted at something more interesting, even if it didn’t quite come off. And he’s good at using the performance space to its best.

So Martin was declared winner in what had looked like a no-win situation, but again the redoubtable spirit of every one of these relative newcomers has to be mentioned.

Luckily the rest of the heats are in rooms known to be good for comedy, starting with the The Enterprise pub in Camden – North London home of the Amused Moose – on Monday, then continuing at Coventry’s Warwick University next Wednesday.

Steve Bennett
February 15, 2006

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