Tonight I was in Ashby at the Funhouse heat of the English Comedian of the Year. As far as I’ve been concerned, this has been the gift that just keeps on giving. Throughout the week, the line up has been released, or at least come to my knowledge, in dribs and drabs and every new name was a real bonus. Pretty much every act I’d seen and enjoyed. It’s not lie to say that some of my favourite comedians were present tonight. This is very likely to be the best £10 I have spent in my life. With a line up this strong, running order could be crucial. Spiky Mike arranged this through the acts picking numbers and those who had luckily picked a lower number getting to choose their position in the running order first. The format was 3-4-3 with each act getting 7 minutes to perform. The time limit suited some acts more than others, as it is a bit neither one nor t’other. Prior to the show, I had some thoughts about the 5 most likely to go through, but with this line up, it really was all up for grabs. The compere was Spiky Mike, who admirably kept things on track and not only didn’t allow the night to drag on to the detriment of later acts, but who also had the hard job of counting the hands at the end. One strange thing about the votes cast was how they didn’t always tally with the support that individual acts had received. A few acts received single digit support, which was totally out of proportion to the laughter they had generated. This definitely threw me when I drew up my list of the likely contenders to go through. As it was, only three were permitted into the next round.
The opening act was Aaron Twitchen who had generously swapped places with the person who had drawn the opening slot. This was admirable and may have hurt his chances of progressing. Twitchen gave the room a mixture of material and audience work, which could have been risky depending upon whom he spoke to. At one point his set did suffer slightly from an audience member claiming to know a lady he was speaking about, but he kept things moving well. Twitchen is a likeable chap and this helps his performance resound with a room. His material was decent and received good laughs, especially his line about mayonnaise – that got a huge laugh. He had a good night, but ultimately didn’t progress.
Next was Pete Teckman, whom I had last seen at a car crash of a gig down South. He opened with a great line and never really looked back. A lot of his material was relatable to the audience and combined with a commanding delivery he definitely built up a good head of steam. He was rewarded with the first applause break of the night and the room really went for him. I was impressed with what I had seen, but I wasn’t totally sure he had done enough to get through – on any other bill I’d have been more certain. As it stood, he was well liked in the vote off and progressed as joint second. This is even more commendable considering how early he had gone on.
The closing act of the first section was Nick Page, who I think was the man most of the acts and myself, had as the man to beat if anyone wanted to guarantee a place in the next round. Page suffered from two disadvantages: he had performed there last month and he had given the room a bumper 40 minute set, that must have used a lot of his material. This was never going to be anything less than interesting. He opened with a call back to Spiky Mike’s compering, which went down well and then proceeded to devote most of his time to a story, rather than short routines. Only he and Pearson took this approach and in both cases it paid a handsome dividend. He deserved an applause break for the Middleton reference, as that was wonderful and also one for his best paid piece of work. The tale he told involved community service and complications arising from it, with a very clever touch concerning the extra hours. This drew the audience in and I think everyone wanted to know how it all turned out. Unfortunately his time ran out before we got to that stage, but everyone had been laughing throughout. This was a master class of how to do a 7 minute set. It was no surprise when he went through in first place by a very respectable margin.
We resumed after the first intermission with the very smartly dressed Phil Pagett. Whilst a waistcoat may not make someone funny on its’ own, in Pagett’s case it adds a touch of class to his stage presence and helps to set the tone for his set. I’ve a lot of time for Pagett, he does very clever one-liners and its nice to hear the laughter rolling around the room as people got the jokes in their own good time. Pagett set a cracking pace, hoovering up laughs at a frightening pace and collecting a huge groan for the icing on the cake. Tonight he became the 3rd act that has made me laugh so hard I’ve hurt myself. I had Pagett down as a contender for the next round, but despite getting a huge response from the audience for his set, he was curiously passed over by the voting, which was a shame.
Wizzy Janew followed and hit the ground running with the audience really enjoying his set and all of his references to the ups and downs and airing cupboards of life. Janew delivers his material with a huge smile, which pushes his material nicely. It’s hard not to enjoy someone’s work when they are so evidently having a good time themselves. He very nearly got an applause break for his stressed out Labrador and whilst he didn’t go through, he had a very good night, with the shorter time limit helping to keep his format fresh.
Hannah Silvester was an act that a lot of people were tipping as a possible contender. I’ve only seen her the once before and that was some new material at the Roadhouse. She’d had a good night then and so I was looking forwards to seeing her tonight. Her approach was a change in style to the previous acts and it seemed to take a moment for the room to adjust to the change in pacing. Her routine about female pilots works on a couple of levels and was a real stand out routine in her set, especially the call back. Silvester gave the room a lot of laughs and whilst I wasn’t sure she’d get through, the votes she received were, like Pagett’s, not in proportion to the laughter she had generated.
The final act of the middle section was Jon Pearson. Last month I saw him perform his one man show in Melton Mowbray, which was an hour of very good material. Seeing him perform a 7 spot for what may be the first time in ages was going to be fascinating. I suspected he would go with his gym routine as that is the stand out of a very good set and would more or less fill the time scale. He was wise to go with this, as the audience were very supportive of a routine that built and built. It was also nice to see some little tweeks that added to the performance. Pearson received great laughs and had a big presence on stage, looking extremely natural. I wasn’t surprised to see him go through as joint second. This is an act who is going to make it a long way in the business.
Lou Chawner, the only act I hadn’t seen before, opened the final section. He began with a heckle he received the other night, which was good in itself, but which was pushed a lot further by the double reveal that followed. Whilst his section on West Brom could have been set in any town it was very accessible and went down well with the audience. Chawner used the most edgy material of the night (until Bambam went on) and this could have been risky, but he judged it well and he received a lot of laughs, delivering a professional set. He didn’t go through to the final but again, the votes weren’t in proportion to the joy he gave the audience.
Rodger Swift was next. It would be easy to just say that Roger was #Roger as most people know him and how his set works and how he’ll divide a room, but that wouldn’t do him justice. He is a veritable whirlwind of props, mirth, asides, laughter and disbelief. He hit the room like a locomotive and probably did 10 minutes of material in 7, with props flying everywhere. His asides at the end of each gag are ludicrously hilarious and I am a big fan. As ever, some people were looking on with disbelief at a man with Tinkerbell in a blender and others were laughing that hard that they were probably adding years to their lives. This was a great performance and provided bags of fun. Swift didn’t make the final, but from the laughter I had him marked down as a contender.
The closing act was Bambam Shaikh. Whilst Bambam may have initially benefited from following Roger, the momentum he built was entirely his own. Jay has a splendidly drawn character act that he brings to life. Bambam works on a lot of levels and tonight he seemed to be scoring bullseyes on every level. Jay received huge laughs and as ever he built up the tension magnificently. This is probably the sharpest I’ve seen him and I was sure he’d kicked all of my considerations on who was going through out the roof. As it was, the audience was split over his act and whilst he received a lot of votes he didn’t make it through.
It’s a cliché to say that everyone was a winner. It’s even more of a cliché to say that tonight it is true. So what I will say is that every comedian gave a splendid performance, made a lot of people laugh and created joy. 100 or so people had a fantastically good night tonight. This was the comedy night of the year so far.