There are some nights when you travel miles to a gig in a town you’ve only ever seen mentioned on crimewatch to watch a group of comedians try, but fail to overcome the apathy of a pub full of people more intent on talking amongst themselves than listening. These are tough nights for comedians and for myself, as I see good material die an unnatural death. Then there are those nights when you travel for 15 minutes and see a splendid gang of comedians have a superb night, making a roomful of people laugh and you drive home on a bit of a high from all the joy. Tonight was one of those wonderful nights where everyone has had their lives improved, apart from Ethel.
I was at the Faf Promotions gig at Bluey’s, an Australian steak house in Alfreton. It’s a nice clean venue where the owner has put a lot of thought and care into the venture. Everything has the air of being cared for. The place is spotless, open plan and has very high ceilings, which made me wonder what it had started life as. The room was pretty full and it had a friendly feel to it. Alfreton doesn’t sound like a likely venue for a good comedy night. It’s basically a pit village that hasn’t found a life following pit closures, yet this venue and this crowd were rather wonderful (apart from Ethel) and were certainly up for comedy. This was helped by our MC, Mr Chris Brooker.
I was really looking forwards to seeing Brooker, as the last time I saw him, in Thorncliffe, he did a great job as compere and so I knew we’d be in good hands. In addition, he’s written an entire year of gig diaries that are fantastic reading and this was another reason to be happy to see him on the bill. Brooker is from Somerset and it’s not often one hears his accent up here. His nice to be nice came out as ‘noice to be noice’ which was rather endearing and certainly something different to the usual for the area. One of my bugbears about comperes is that so many are stuck in a rut of asking people what they do for a living; almost as if it is the only permitted question, or is what ‘proper’ MC’s do. I was very pleased to see that Brooker didn’t have to do this. He generated material and mirth in a more naturalistic manner. Some of this came from noting where people had sat and then working from there, other parts came from bits and bobs audience members had said. He is an experienced compere and this showed in his quick thinking. He had some great lines, plenty of authority and there was a lot of joy in him saying a line and then adding the twist, almost as an after thought. When he asked one chap about invented friends, he did this in exactly the right tone to get the maximum return without crossing any line into offensiveness or even just making his ‘victim’ look like any kind of wally.
There was a frankly baffling heckler who appeared during the 1st intermission. ‘Ethel’ demonstrated that it was possible not only to be so drunk as to have no sense of self, but also that one person can be amazingly disruptive. Ethel was amazingly persistent. When 99.999% of the population would have given up talking and started worrying that the rest of the room were measuring them up for a Wickerman, she persevered. She wasn’t rude or crude. She just wouldn’t shut up. I began to wonder if Josef Fritzl had once been a normal man with a family who didn’t know when to button it and if Bluey’s had a cellar….. There are different ways comperes handle people like Ethel. Some try to reason, some humour them, other’s ignore them and some bring an act on and hope for the best. Brooker went head to head with her. Not in a confrontational way, but in a way that kept his authority, generated laughs and kept the sympathy of the room – not an easy balance and all the more difficult in a pub where most of the audience know each other by name. Whilst it did resemble a chap trying to teach astrophysics to a hamster, Brooker was succesful. He got laughs and applause breaks and just as importantly succeeded in quieting Ethel.
This was until the final intermission, when she made a reapparance in way not unlike a villain in a Hammer, House of Horror, film. Her shout out was totally incomprehensible and firmly brushed aside. Brooker had a good night. He added a lot of laughs to the evening, kept things flowing and showed the audience why his skills as a MC are so highly thought of.
The opening act was Scott Bennett. As a local-ish lad he had lots of local references he could insert into his set and these all got big laughs. His joke about there being an equivalent to Bluey’s in Australia hit home to a huge response. Bennett’s material was very relatable to the audience and went down extremely well. Only two reveals didn’t get the response they should have got and this was on a set with a lot of reveals, giving him a really good hit rate. Some comedians have good material, others have a good delivery. Bennett has both, but to me, it is his delivery that really makes his act special. He brings his characters to life and has little touches, such as knowing just when to smile as he lets something sink in. These all add a lot of value to his set. This was a strong set from a highly skilled comedian.
The second act was Phil Reid, who is very much a rising star. Only last week he won the Hoofers talent contest against strong opposition. Tonight he gave us an exhibition of his talents. This was a set that had a nice bit of variety to it. He began strongly with the meaning of names, working the audience and talking with people, rather than to. This served to make the room feel included in his set. He then moved on to a routine based on Take me out, involving the ladies of the room in making the appropriate noises for the show. His ending to this piece is one that really depends on the audience member he is speaking to wanting to get involved. This can be a drawback if they don’t want to talk, or a real highlight if they play along.
Reid then went on to do a section involving ventriloquism (his lips didn’t look to move from where I was sat) and the moving mouth masks that Nina Conti has made famous. Whilst she may be the best known practioner of this approach, Reid had his own material for this, which worked well and again, involved the room. He picked a chap sat on the front row to be his volunteer. As it was, he picked the owner of the establishment, a popular figure in the pub, and was rewarded with fantastic laughs and people filming for posterity. Reid told me that this was blind luck, but I’ve noticed that he keeps his eyes and ears open for little bits of information that he can work into his set and so I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been good judgement.
Reid gave a great performance. His delivery is quick and enthusiastic and rooms warm to him quickly. He has great strengths involving the room in his routines and this gives his work an inclusive feel that rooms want to buy into.
The final act was Jim Tavare. He has a great physical presence, dressed in a tuxedo with a cello. His set is extremely polished and delivered impeccably. He has a set of great visual gags and prop gags and musical gags that get great laughs and applause breaks. His stripper section is a real show stopper and he is one of the few acts I’ve seen who have closed to cries of more.
This was a great night.