The Cross Keys – Callum Oakley, Sean Sellers, Tom King, Fran Jenking, Scott Bennett and Pat Draper

Last night I was in Nottingham at the Cross Keys for the Fowl Humour comedy night. This is a nice little gig. The room, although under lit, has a unique lay out that is conducive to good humour – the backdrop looks like a 19th century parlour. Numbers for this gig vary wildly. In fact, I’ve never known a gig like it for variation in the size of audience. I’ve been there on nights when it has been standing room only and then there have been nights where acts almost outnumber the audience. Unfortunately last night’s gig clashed with the Wales – Portugal game and had lost out. However, the audience did include local comedy figures Jeanette Bird-Bradley and Elliot Bower, who had replaced a poorly Andy Hughes (a suspiciously Welsh sounding surname for anyone phoning in on a night when Wales are playing their biggest ever match) on sound and electrics. Our compere was Andy Fowler, who made a high energy start as he tried to breathe some atmosphere into the room. Although Fowler didn’t realise it, he was stood under one of the few lights, with his face in complete shadow, broad shoulders outlined against the mantle piece behind him. Unintentionally, he managed to resemble a villain from a slasher film. He caught me on the hop when talking about the venue holding a beer festival by asking me if I was drinking. As a rule, I’m generally the last person comedians interact with and I ended up looking like a nincompoop as I looked behind me to see if he was addressing some other chap in a hat. Andy pushed the raffle, got the room in readiness and introduced the first act.

The opening act was Callum Oakley, whom I wasn’t familiar with. In looks he resembled a young Michael Praed, although it is hard to imagine Robin of Sherwood with a strong Scouse accent. Oakley was a confidence presence as he began a set that comprised a fair amount of new material. His opening gambit concerned English and foreign languages. This is an area a few comics have tackled and I was most grateful that he didn’t mention anything about shouting and assuming foreigners are deaf. This led nicely into a section about indigenous ales, settling on the very limited appeal of Newcastle Brown Ale (something that may not go down well if he plays on Tyneside). I liked this bit and felt it showed promise – the line about the caravan dweller could be developed into a very nice routine and be taken in 3-4 different directions. His idea about people from Lanzarote coming here and making comments about our water didn’t really seem to go anywhere, but discovering this is what new material nights are for. The tale of a gig attended with Simon Wozniak was entertaining, although Oakley’s timing could perhaps have been better as he left a fairly long pause after saying Brown and that made it sound as if that should have been the reveal. There was a very amiable story about Oakley accidentally robbing a homeless chap of his tea that was building nicely until two late comers arrived and spoilt this. He dealt with this well and then moved onto his final story, that of joining in a game of wrestling with his mum and dad. This was a nicely worded routine that was well described. I enjoyed Oakley’s set and feel that he has a lot of promise. There weren’t a lot of huge laughs, but there were still a lot of laughs and it has a nice feel good factor to it.

Next was the American Sean Sellers, who was possibly the most overdressed man in the room. He began by referencing the unusual décor, which was a sound start before going on to discuss Snoop Dog and then singing and deconstructing one of his songs. This hit two snags, one, the song he chose was one that only a few people had heard of and were willing to invest time in, and two, pointing out lyrical absurdities has been done to death. It’s hard to make this work as so many other comedians have torn songs to pieces, especially with a song that few people care about. This was followed by that immortal phrase, ‘ I’ll tell you a bit about myself’. This could have been interesting, with him being an American living in Britain there would naturally be a backstory, but instead he skipped along to riffing with Trump/Clarkson similarities, which was ok, but seemed to be going for low hanging fruit. Sellers was better with his material about Crow and roses; this was more unique and had a good final reveal to it. At times it seemed that he was heading into a political set, talking about Trump and Mexico and mentioning, but not discussing the Daily Mail. However, he didn’t really make the most of this, sort of settling on making some points but not really developing them for comic effect. This was a shame, as I have a feeling that he may have some good political points to make and could be funny whilst doing so. Two minutes before the end of his spot, Sellers ran out of steam and probably should have tapped out, but instead doggedly saw his time out. This sounds a very negative review, but Sellers isn’t an intrinsically bad comedian. This material wasn’t great, but then it was a new material night and not everything is going to work. On the plus side, Sellers has a polished delivery and with different material would be stronger.

Next was Tom King who made a big rock star like entrance to the stage. This was the perfect set up for his first gag. Following hard upon this were two fast gags that were callbacks to Fowler’s compering and the ‘Out’ voter sat on the front row. King’s set was fast moving, with pretty much something for everyone in it. Songs, silly things said, surrealism and a subtle joke about ‘meating’ one’s heroes. The cannibal restaurant is material that will never get old due to his ability to work in the latest dead celeb. This was also a set that never came close to outstaying its’ welcome. King was the best I’ve ever seen him. He seemed to capture the mood of the room within the first 30 seconds of opening his mouth and never looked back. Everything he said worked and he was on such a roll that he probably could have done anything he liked. A very strong performance from a reliable act.

After the intermission we resumed with Fran Jenking, whom I consider to be a natural compere. He’s one of those chaps who is very much a people person; the sort of cove who would probably start a sing song in a lift if he got half the chance. I’ve noticed that during most gigs he slips into MC mode very easily. Tonight he was trying some new material, but immediately he defaulted to bantering with the audience – his opening line being ‘give me a cheer if you’ve been drinking’. I like this, as it feels more natural to see Fran taking this approach. However, it must make it harder for him to concentrate on material. In this he reminded me of that old and under-appreciated programme, Show me the Funny. Johnny Vegas, who was mentoring Pat Monahan, had noticed that Monahan couldn’t help but banter with the audience and he set him a task to just do material without reacting in any way to the people in front of him. I’m not sure if such an approach would help or hinder Jenking, as I consider him far stronger bantering than using material. Tonight his new material was rather raw and perhaps requires a rethink, although I did enjoy the section about Punk rock.

Our next act was the Spectrum Tshirt wearing Scott Bennett, who was also honing some new material. Bennett is a quality act who gigs regularly and this can be seen in his delivery, which has a natural rhythm and sharpness to it. He also has a wonderful turn of phrase that makes his relatable material even more accessible. As ever, he received not only consistent laughs, but big laughs, too. It was lovely to see an improved line in Postman Pat (sampling the merchandise). However, it was during Bennett’s set that the room reached a perverse tipping point regarding attention spans. This wasn’t the usual problem with attention spans, people yawning, checking their phones and looking out of the window, but instead they began to get TOO involved in the mechanics of his material. Bennett’s rhetorical questions about kids telly provoked a lively debate about Windy Miller and whether Pat should be working for Amazon now. This then evolved into a competition between a group of lads as to whom could chime in with the best interjection (none of them could). Bennett finished his set, which included some very nice ad-libs that he threw in without missing a beat.

The closing act was Pat Draper, who gave us the sight of a good act performing a good gig with good material to a bad crowd. Whilst Bennett’s performance had been marred by the audience joining in, Draper’s was all but crucified by it. He did very well to keep control, deliver his set and to achieve laughs. Although I’m sure he felt he had a bad gig, paradoxically, Draper may have actually benefited from having to perform so well under what were less than ideal circumstances. The heckling was more in the nature of shout outs than anything unpleasant and it was more boozily good natured than derogatory, but it didn’t half make life more difficult than it should have been. As if this wasn’t enough, when it came to do a couple of songs, owing to an error by the gig’s sound dept, his guitar came through the amps at volume 11, which necessitated a momentum zapping restart. On the plus side, Draper demonstrated a lot of patience in controlling the audience and his withering comments were extremely funny. He also managed to get out some new material concerning a yawn, which is a definite keeper. This was a strong performance under unfortunate circumstances and a highly enjoyable one at that.

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