Tonight I was back in the Canal House for the NCF new act of the year final. Just a cursory glance of the contestants showed that this had the makings of a massively fun night. I’d seen every act before and I knew that this would be a hard one to call. What made this night all the more remarkable was the sheer diversity of talent present – seven contestants and five distinctly different approaches to comedy. Whichever way the result went, this would be a cracking night. A sold out night, too, as the Canal House was packed to the rafters. The format was 5 minutes each with 3 acts, intermission, 4 acts, intermission and then a short headline set whilst the votes were counted, before the winner was announced. The judges, of which I’m proud to have been one, where to vote for their favourite and 2nd place, with no audience vote, which given the geographical spread of the entrants was probably fairest in ensuring no one had a home advantage. Our MC was Carl Jones, who was the first ever winner of this prize.
Jones is arguably an underused Compere, whom I’d expect to see more on the circuit. Tonight he did the rules, explained the voting system, which included a timely reference to the perils of pure democracy and then chatted to a few people. Jones was unlucky in the first person he spoke to, who seemed to take a long time to answer the question of what he did with his time and ultimately there wasn’t much comedy to be had in that, a point that Jones acknowledged and received a good laugh for. The second people he chatted with were at the other end of the scale and he could probably have got a good twenty minutes out of their tale of three engagement rings, ebay, a knuckleduster and proposing under duress. To fully explore this story would have taken far longer than he had and after getting laughs, he wisely extricated himself and moved the night on. Although I think that Jones was unfortunate in the people he chatted to, I enjoyed watching him work. Jones is a sure footed and smooth act with a likeable presence and him being booked was a shrewd move.
Opening the night was Adele Cliff, who was unlucky with the running order. Having said that, she probably had the best chance of any of the acts of making the most out of going first. Cliff is a one-liner expert with a warm winning grin. Her puns are very good and elicit a mixture of groans and laughs and the 5 minutes seemed to pass all too quickly. The last time I saw Cliff, it was up in Edinburgh and it’s nice to see that she has improved further since then. Although Cliff didn’t win tonight, her time is certain to come.
Next was Houssem Rhaiem, who was a relaxed and confident presence on stage. The room warmed to him quickly and he gave the audience a largely smooth flowing set, where the big laughs came from the jokes about his background, although I thought the nurse routine was the standout. There were a couple of elements to this set that I wasn’t too sure about and that was the line about Prince Harry, which seemed to be something of an afterthought, largely divorced from the topic he was discussing and also the line about porn and pizza deliveries, which was a version of porn giving unrealistic expectations of plumbers arriving quickly. These two elements aside, which I’m probably being a little bit picky about, this was a sharp set and also an enjoyable one. Rhaiem finished 3rd, which was nice to see.
Closing the first section was Rosie Francis, whom I had down as a dark horse, probably not experienced enough yet to win, but a genuine contender all the same. Francis took a mixed approach to her set and included an audience sing-along, visual aids, a poem and some straightforward comedy. This could have been high risk, especially having a singsong with the audience, but she pulled it off with aplomb. Francis wasn’t helped by some unpleasant noise bleed from some keen chap working outside at 9pm, but fortunately this didn’t hurt her too badly. Instead, she hoovered up a lot of laughter and her performance remained fresh and fast moving. This was a well thought out five minutes, with a lot of creativity in evidence. Francis was a well deserved 2nd place.
We resumed after the intermission with Simon Wozniak occupying the sweet spot. Twice this week Wozniak has been a finalist in comedy competitions, but without taking top spot. I was wondering if he would pull it off tonight, as I felt that he was certainly in with a chance. He made a strong beginning and never really looked back. His material was relatable and drew the audience in and even when he was miming riding an elephant he still kept everyone with him. He delivered his material lent back, pushing his belly out and whenever he got excited his voice went up in pitch, which considering his Liverpudlian accent, seemed to just ratchet up the impact of what he was saying. There were a lot of big laughs during this set and Wozniak delivered a stellar performance. He was a worthy winner of the engraved trophy.
The Midlands Comedy Awards nominee, Liam Webber is an interesting act. He was easily the most avant-garde of the performers, yet rather than split the room he was compelling viewing. He began by acting out dogs in space (which in concept very slightly reminded me a bit of the old Muppet Show sketch of Pigs in Space) and developed the storyline from there. Despite this being surreal, everyone stayed with him all the way through to the final ending. I was impressed by Webber for a few reasons. One, is his performance skills – these are top notch and he should be on a stage in the West End. Two, he didn’t underestimate the intelligence of the audience and he wasn’t afraid of risking impersonating Nixon’s I am not a crook line. The entire set was delivered in a highly credible American accent and although it might be a bit of a cheap laugh, it’s possible there is mileage in Webber capping off future shows by saying his ‘that’s my time up, I’ve been Liam Webber’ in a strong Brummie or Lancashire accent.
Harv Hawkins began by using a prop card which included a wonderfully timely punchline. From there he went on to talk about pastille gits, his mother and viewing houses. I was especially happy with his inversion of the old ‘tell you a bit about me’ line and judging from the laughs, the rest of the room appreciated it, too. Hawkins’ delivery was quiet, letting the material do the heavy work for him. He was also stood slightly differently to what I was expecting. In the past Hawkins has delivered his material stood with his shoulders hunched, giving the impression of a man with who forgotten to take the coat hanger out of his shirt, but tonight this wasn’t present and that’s a shame, as I feel that that stance is a splendid gimmick. This was a good set and Hawkins was unlucky not to secure a top three spot.
The final contestant was Harry Sanders, who easily had the darkest material of the night. He began well, but his first minute or two wasn’t as strong as it could have been, however this changed very quickly when he began with the dark material. This hit home very well indeed and he was rewarded with some very audible reactions from the audience. This material was very good and he has an eye for writing a line that is morally questionable, yet undoubtedly very funny. Sanders’ delivery was occasionally a little bit dry, sometimes saying things as a matter of fact and if he were to deliver the same lines with a twinkle or a knowing grin then he would reap a big dividend. I enjoyed Sanders’ performance and it’s always interesting to see him on a bill.
Whilst the votes were counted, Jon Pearson, who was standing in for last years winner, Josh Pugh, did a short set. There were some nice incremental improvements here, such as yoga teacher, raping R2D2 and car wash. These all added extra value to the material. As always, it was well delivered and enjoyable to see.