Beer House – Martin Huburn, Paul Rogers, Saul Lester, Ashley Gibson, Suzanne Shepherd, Will Mars, Kahn Johnson, Rob Stevenson and Ishi Khan-Jackson MC)

Last night I was back in Market Harborough for Peter Thomas’ new act/material show, Beer Talk, held in the Beer House. I went there last year on what was unfortunately an atypical evening, so I was interested in seeing how things went on a more congenial night. To begin with, it didn’t look as if we were going to get there as early as I’d have liked, as my map proved to be more optimistically drawn than of actual use as a navigating tool, but thanks to Rob Stevenson’s phone, we managed, through dint of country lanes and back roads to get there in time to chat with Peter Thomas. Thomas is the promoter of this night and as such, he spent a lot of his time looking after the acts, making sure they had drinks, organising the bucket (baking tray) collection and setting an example by sitting in the audience. The punters seemed to be doing their best not to dispel any stereotypes of what one would expect to see in a real ale pub, with beards ranging from trendy hipster, here this season gone the next, to Sons of Anarchy don’t give a fuckery and a full on ZZ Top at the ultimate end of the scale. They were a crowd who, in the beginning, also seemed determined not to settle down. There was a lot of backchat and talking amongst themselves during the first spell of compering, but luckily the two chaps most responsible for this vanished during the first intermission and without their ostentatious behaviour the room settled down nicely and this turned into a nice little gig. Our guest host was Ishi Khan-Jackson.

Having a guest host can work two ways. On one level it keeps things fresh for the regulars, but on the other hand, it can take the locum (for want of a better word) host a while to establish their authority. Thanks to the two chaps at the bar who, until they left, seemed determined to upstage the comics, it took Khan-Jackson some time to bring the room to order. She began well enough by talking about the weather, but within the first 30 seconds it was apparent that only half of the audience were giving her their full attention. Rather than just concentrate on these people and let the chatters come round at their own speed, she deliberately started talking to them, which showed some determination. In this she was successful enough to bring them mostly onboard. Khan-Jackson used a light touch which was probably the right approach as the night wore on. Although I’m not convinced that laughter therapy will catch on as a compering tool, it did add a bit of energy in the later section. The rules were announced, including the safety ones, which is nice to see. Khan-Jackson had a pleasant evening and did well to get order during her opening session and to keep the breaks short.

Our opening act was Martin Huburn, who was an inspired choice for point man. He has a confident presence and the room took note of him after they had settled back down after some initial chatting. His delivery is enjoyable and it works well with the material, which gained consistent laughs. Huburn received a big response for his section about Gypsies, who obviously aren’t a popular group of people in Market Harborough. Whilst the rest of the room laughed, I did feel a tad uncomfortable, personally, as I felt it played on a stereotype. However, this bit did tie in to the number of rag and bone men in Tipton, which is not a topic anyone else on the circuit is using. Sacrifice was very good and whilst talking about his kids, Huburn was definitely on solid ground. There was a bit where being on a register was the reveal and this was surprisingly pedestrian in a good set, so I asked about this during an intermission and discovered that this was a set up for a later piece which wasn’t used and so this explains the inclusion. The material on wrestling was entertaining and there is certainly mileage in that, although I think the reveal for being asked about being on a telly programme was one that some of the room got to before Huburn did. This was a good solid set, delivered well and one that would have benefited from another 5 minutes or so of stage time, as I would have liked to have seen more of this act.

The next act was Paul Rogers, who was caught napping, as he believed he was on third. He swiftly made his way to the stage, carrying his guitar, which in the end wasn’t used, possibly because the microphone was too distant for it. He began well with an ad-lib about hairy chests, which fitted in well with the amount of extra audience hair on display and was an highlight to his set. This was then followed by a logical deconstruction of the phrase ‘one in, one out’, which whilst unimpeachable on logical grounds, just sounded like a drunken argument with a bouncer. This material is a bit raw at the moment and it could be enhanced, possibly with a change in pitch, making it sound less like a rant and adding a twist. The career inspired alphabetising involved a long set up for a low powered reveal, but in itself, it’s not bad material. The delivery was a little bit fast and Rogers would profit from slowing down a bit. This was only the third time he has performed and it wasn’t bad – with more stage time he is someone who will improve.

We resumed after the first intermission with Saul Lester, who was on his first ever gig. Lester has an intellectual look about him, which gave me confidence that we weren’t about to hear a stream of knob gags. In a lot of ways, he was perhaps the most interesting act of the night and whilst what he was trying to do didn’t quite come off, it was evident that he had put a lot of thought into his set. He began well with a bit about plagiarism, which gained good laughs. This was then followed by a bit about traffic lights and then a production line of jobs that he had been sacked from. The call back to traffic lights was excellent and gained the only applause break of the night, although the later two call backs to it were perhaps two too many. The circus job and big shoes to fill was predictable, but that’s not the end of the world and the repeat on critical mass fell into the category best described as being more clever than funny. However, it was in the last minute of Lester’s set that his structure became apparent. All of the threads that had been left hanging (which I had put down to inexperience) were returned to and wrapped up – the format was set up, something else and then give minutes later, reveal to set up from earlier. This made for a good set and one with a feeling of completeness. However, it didn’t totally succeed as planned. Lester could have done with a few more laughs at the 3 to 4 minute mark to sustain the momentum, as there was a bit of a lag there and a bigger ending would have been nice. However, this is just a matter of fine tuning. This was an excellent set on a technical level and for a first ever performance a remarkably good one.

Next was Ashley Gibson, sporting a velvet jacket that helped him stand out. He began with one-liners and then bantered with the audience. He built up quite a lot of momentum with the one-liners and this helped sustain him through the dead spells when he was checking his hand (two steps forwards and one back). The room work went down well, despite running out of microphone lead and a tactical error with talking politics. This mixture worked well and this is easily the best that I have seen Gibson do. However, many of the one-liners still had an air of google about them, such as puppets having sex, no strings attached.

Suzanne Lea Shepherd, hailing from Kansas was next. She began by apologising for being American, which makes her something like the third foreign act I’ve heard apologise for this. Her material about English villages and churches fell a bit flat, but when discussing her dad dating she did better, as this translated well. The short section about Donald Trump, which whilst similar to stuff that has been said often before, still received a decent laugh. I found the material on cheerleading disappointing, as it wasn’t exotic enough to really grab me, but at the same time it was foreign enough to be hard to relate to. Overeating went down well, as did fart wave, but Shepherd was an act that didn’t really do it for me and I think the reason for this was her delivery, which was a bit uninspired. The same material, delivered with a bit more energy and panache would have been a lot more engaging.

Next was Will Mars, who was also hurt by his delivery. This veered from what might have been considered almost deadpan, to merely flat. A lot of Mars’ material was good: third kid, minutes silence and tipping in New York – all good and Bowie was clever. However, despite this, I felt that he underperformed. Like Shepherd, if he had something to lift his delivery, then he would achieve more with the same material.

Kahn Johnson, returning after six weeks without a gig, opened the final part of the show. He is a reassuring presence on stage and one feels in safe hands. His take on online dating was different and mercifully short considering just how prevalent material about this was last year. Although I might have got to the reveal on Princess Leia before he did, his comments about feet and lego were great and a real stand out to his set. Dogs and cats was enjoyable and the pull back and reveal to competitive illnesses gave a good solid ending to his set. Johnson’s real strength, especially in a small room is his captivating delivery. He leans forward, towards the audience and looks at people, almost making them feel this is being laid on for them alone. He also talks with his hands, which adds an extra layer to his set. This was a good performance and it’s a shame he has moved to Norwich, which must make it hard to get gigs.

The closing act was Rob Stevenson who probably had the most ups and downs of any act present. To begin with, he was only down to see the show, with the vague hope of benefiting from someone dropping out. He then picked up a place, following a drop out and was geared up for a 10 spot. However, owing to the passing of time he only ended up with five minutes, as I think the show had to close by 2300. To go mentally from not working, to expecting ten minutes to then having to provide five minutes is likely to throw most acts mental equilibrium out a bit. This probably explains why although he didn’t quite die, he didn’t perform as well as I’d have expected. Stevenson is good at room work and hoovering up material as he goes along and perhaps he would have been better to go with that, rather than to rejig a set at the same time he was trying to deliver it. Despite this not going as planned, this was only Stevenson’s 4th or 5th gig and he probably learnt more from this than he would have done from just having a normal gig.

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