The Rigger – Andrew Marsh, Nicholas Steinberg, Jennifer Banks, Jack Topher, Joe Bains, Rosie Francis, ‘Dougie’, Harry Sanders, Valerio Sara, Liam Webber, AJ Hill, Phil Yates and Tom Oliver

Last night I was in Stoke, at a rock pub called the Rigger for the Funhouse Gong Show. This is a nice pub, with plenty of space, a decent sized stage, a cracking sound system and a good atmosphere. There was a fair sized crowd (1 of whom made off with a pair of judging cards, the bounder) which verged towards the harsher side of the spectrum, gonging off 8 out of the 13 acts. Although there was a strong Notts/Leics contingent performing, it was impossible to spot the likely winner from the acts present. Spiky Mike began his compering with a bit more energy than usual and this was in keeping with the ambience of the room. He gave the audience a moment of joy when an innocent questioning of a couple led to the response from one of them to their partner of ‘Don’t tell him!’ Although I think the entire room wanted to know what we weren’t meant to know, Mike was smart enough not to push on this, as by the time he had dragged it out of them, any victory would have been pyrrhic. The format and the rules were explained and we were ready to begin.

The opening act was Andrew Marsh, who took to the stage, wine glass in hand. He was halted within the first 2 seconds by the sound technician (nice to have one at a gig), who had to adjust a level or titivate a filter or finish his tea or whatever these chaps do and then he was given the nod to begin. This could have upset a few acts, but Marsh seemed to take it in his stride. He began by asking for a cheer from the people who were drinking, which seemed to me just to be duplicating the work of a compere. From this he had a brief bit about his home town, Wakefield, which he ran down and then it was the main body of his set, which concerned being unemployed, porn and day time telly. He lost momentum when he got to Spongebob and was gonged off. Whilst his delivery was slow and deliberate, this set never really seemed to get going. The material was pretty uninspired and had an air of the basic about it – when Marsh was discussing the denizens of Wakefield, for instance, it just seemed very rudimentary. This was a set that would benefit from being stripped down and begun anew, although the guess who bit was nice.

The second act was Nicholas Steinberg whose material was largely based on old hack 1970’s style gags, apart from Scousers saying hey hey, which is vintage 1990’s hack. There was a Take That song gag (apt for Stoke), but the set up was too long for a gong show and combined with a few bad puns that Steinberg opened with, was enough to ensure an early gonging. There is room in comedy for acts doing retro style comedy, but the performance has to have an air of panache about it (Steve Royle does this very well) and by starting with dodgy gags it wasn’t clear at first whether Steinberg was being ironic (like Bernard Righton, but without the twists) or if it was to be taken at face value, perhaps if he had made a stronger start, we may have found out more.

Jennifer Banks made an interactive start, before becoming the 2nd act from Yorkshire to play shit town top trumps, as she ran down her home town of Bradford (by this point I was envisaging the Yorkshire tourist board gaffer doing his nut). There was then material about a hairy back, with a predictable reveal, but in fairness this did lead to good spot of material about separation, although I did think there was possibly room for a gag about static electricity. Banks had an A3 folder full of pics to illustrate her material about internet dating. I like A3 sized props, as the room can see them, which is in contrast to A4 print outs, which always have the air of having been done at work when no one is about. Unfortunately this routine was another one that was a tad predictable. When Banks was discussing a potential date who liked animals and singing I don’t think there were many people who didn’t expect to see a picture of Rolf Harris. This was a shame, because despite the material, which I think would stand a bit more work, Banks gave an engaging performance and I was glad to see her make the final. With stronger material she will be a lot better.

The final act of the opening section was Jack Topher, an act who really should gig more if he wants to climb the comedy ladder. His material was well written and had a number of clever elements, such as when he played with the audience, letting them fill in the punchline when discussing his lightweight brother and there was a great pause on stoned to death as well as little, almost playful touches like being out drinking with Latoya. Interestingly, His set contained some pathos, but this had just the right tone to lift it and to make it funny, not easily done. Topher was the eventual runner up.

Following the intermission, we resumed with the confident looking Joe Bains. He began by talking to a chap on the front row, asking what he did, but as Spiky Mike had spoken to this chap twice already and his details were known, asking again didn’t go down that well. Bains had some nice touches in his set, such as the nods of his head when discussing his name, being happy to break the 4th wall and his material on virgins and terrorists was strong, gaining him the first applause break of the night. However, other elements were not so strong and when he was discussing a visit to the Taj Mahal I think a lot of people got to the punchline before he did, although in fairness, it still got a laugh. It perhaps would have been to Bains’ advantage to have referenced the call centre worker sat at the bar (only spoken to by Mike five minutes earlier) when he did material on call centres, as this would have made this section a lot more relatable to the audience. Bains made it through to the final, where his 60 second end piece involved an interesting concept, but which wasn’t really pacey enough to end with. This was a set with a lot of nice things about it and I look forwards to seeing Bains again.

Rosie Francis was next. I’ve found her to be a creative act, who can cover a lot of different approaches and styles without the disparate elements of her set feeling as if they have been glued together by blu tak. Instead, it feels quite natural as she moves from holding a sing-along to prop work and so on. Generally, I’d have said that getting the audience to have a singsong in a gong show is madness, but she managed to get the room singing back to her, which is no mean achievement, although if she’d gone on first, I think the challenge in this would have been trebled. I was enjoying her performance and there was a feeling of a set building nicely, but unfortunately she lost her connection with the audience when she began reading from a book at the moment a vote was called and off she went.

James Harkness performed as the only character act of the night: ‘Dougie’. He played Dougie as an oddball, who had been put up to performing by some less than well meaning ‘friends’. He was dressed very down at heel, with a baseball cap pulled low over his face and he was hesitant, with a delivery that was all over the place and he kept getting distracted from what he was saying. He gained a lot of laughter within the first two minutes, but it wasn’t obvious if the audience were laughing with him or at him, pegging him for a hopeless act. I think it was a little bit touch and go whether he was voted off at the first vote, as it was far from clear whether the room had twigged this was a character piece or were perversely voting to keep him on to watch what looked like a car crash of a show. During this middle bit, it became apparent to the audience that this was indeed a character piece and that there was a lot of creativity behind the facade and the audience were soon laughing with Dougie, giving him the 2nd applause break of the night. He deliberately ran out of steam in the last minute, but he had enough stage presence to make the most out of this awkwardness. Dougie was the eventual winner of the night and this was in a lot of ways a fun set. I’d be curious to see if it would work over ten minutes or so, though.

Harry Sanders was doing some new material tonight and he made a promising start by tying his opening lines into the rock n roll music that had been played during the intermission. His set was tightly written and he is a comedian whom I’ve never heard say erm, or ah, between words. However, his bit about Trump got nothing back, as did geography. Southern rail was a nice piece of satire, which I got as a regular reader of Private Eye, but which I think flummoxed the good people of Stoke. Sanders was an early, but not unfair gonging. I rather think he was primarily giving the new material a run out and if he’d have won the show, it would have been just a nice bonus to him.

Valerio Sara is a nicely different act. He is a man who knows the value of a long silence. He is also a man who is brave enough to risk long silences at a gong show. He began with a drawn out silence, as he stood staring at the audience, almost daring them to look away from him. He would then deliver a set up and following another pause, there would be an offbeat reveal. A lot of this verged on anti-comedy, with set up and reveal seemingly from different jokes and the result was a lot of laughter. It was a shame when he was gonged off, as I was enjoying his performance.

Liam Webber began well, remembering that Matt sat at the front, was a dog trainer and he started by chatting to him, asking a question that would have led into his sketch about dogs in space. Unfortunately when Matt bungled the answer (Laika the space dog), this threw Webber a touch off stride and considering that he was visually unwell, shaking as grasped the mic stand, looking dizzy it was little surprise that his set faltered from there and he soon left the stage, looking like he’d seen a ghost.

AJ ‘Hillbo’ Hill opened the final section, resplendent in sailor’s hat and water wings. He began with some knowingly bad puns that had a nautical bend and luckily he had enough presence to pull these off. This was followed by a bit of audience work and a sea shanty, but he failed to strike a chord with the audience and was gonged off. I think that Hill suffered a bit from the running order, as we’d already had acts doing bad puns and a bit of singing and whilst not a character piece like Dougie, Hill certainly seemed almost as unusual and I think all of this played a part in his gonging. Hill’s performance was tighter than when I had last seen him.

Phil Yates gave an impressive performance. He looked plausible from the beginning, with his dry delivery and wearing a suit made him stand out and led to a lovely and under appreciated throwaway line about him being on a bus. He began with a visual gag and then moved on to a prop based routine, with grammatically mangled words on A3 pieces of paper. During this section he looked like a man who would have benefited from a third hand, or perhaps a volunteer on the stage holding the cards for him. This set flowed very nicely and although there was a hiccup when he lost his place and had to fish his set list out of his pocket, he maintained his cool and in a new act this is eminently forgiveable. Yates made it through to the final, where in the 60 seconds he had to make his final push for victory when most acts pull out something short and snappy, he made the bizarre decision to perform World in Motion (I thought it was the Anfield Rap) – a song with zero comedy value.

The final act was Tom Oliver, who began with a few long and convoluted set ups. These were overly wordy and he hardly paused for breath. Unfortunately he then lost his place in his set, his mind went blank and unlike Yates, he wasn’t wearing a suit with an inside pocket containing his set list. Oliver then floundered until the first vote sent him off. Oliver’s set was a disaster, it was one that he handled with a lot of charm.

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