The Maze – Richard Probert, Gary Peterson, Chris Stiles, Matt West, Houssem Rhaiem, Nathan Newton-Willington, David Cox, Jimbo, Sandra Hale, Mo Haroon, Ben Verhoven, Henry Hempstead, Rob Callaghan and Sham Zaman

Tonight I was in Nottingham at The Maze for the Funhouse gong show. It seems like ages since I last went to a gong, so I was really looking forwards to this. There were a bumper 15 acts booked in and since 14 actually turned up, this made for quite a busy night. I’d only seen a few of the acts before and it’s always fun to see new comedians. My only concern was that there were a couple of local acts who had managed to bring a lot of friends with them. This isn’t usually a problem, but if it came to a cheer off we just had to hope they did the square thing and cheered the loudest for talent; something that Mike reminded them of just before the final commenced. The room was initially slow to warm up, but Mike won them over with Lilly proving to be an ideal audience member: one who laughed loudly and often.

Richard Probert

Probert wearing a blazer and a big collar was the opening act, beginning with a standard love child of joke. He gave the room an extended anecdote and then a routine about anal sex; both of which suffered from being overly descriptive and too wordy. They would have benefited from being edited down to just enough exposition to set the scene and then he could have hit the room with the funny and built up momentum. Instead the humour ended up lost amongst the verbiage. Although the pull back and reveal on the party got a bit of a laugh, I think he could have done better as I doubt anyone was hugely surprised by the direction he took. Probert’s delivery was clear, but a little bit more warmth in it to draw people in would have been nice. He didn’t do badly, making the final, but I think he could improve.

Gary Peterson

Peterson has good performance skills and has the confidence to work an audience, referencing them in his set. I was very happy to see that he had been listening to Mike’s compering and could address material to individual audience members by name. This definitely helped him to hold the room’s attention. His material wasn’t bad, but could perhaps do with a bit more work and especially a big pay off. The routine based on local place names was fun, but I don’t think it will travel that well as a lot of audiences seem a bit disengaged with material specific to not their town. The section based upon rectal investigations (Peterson was unlucky being the second act in a row to have an anal based routine) was stronger with the roast line being the stand out of the set.

Chris Stiles

Stiles had a good night with the Barnsley pilot consistently proving to be his strongest material. The plumber was good, but needs a bigger closing line. I do think that tonight Stiles missed a trick by not tying his material into the room, but he did well enough to get through to the final.

Matt West

West began weakly with a joke based around his name; he didn’t speak that clearly whilst doing this line and I think that half of the room didn’t quite catch on that it was a joke at first and even having heard it all myself I’d still say that a rewording of it at the least is in order. The rest of West’s set was better, but it only really came to life with him doing the enthusiastic advertiser type voice. This stuff was good and the audience were onboard with it. He built up a lot of momentum with that.

Houssem Rhaiem

Rhaiem has had a funny old week. Six days ago he made it through to the semi finals of the English Comedian of the Year, which is excellent going, but tonight he failed to make it to the final of this gong show. Rhaiem’s material is good, but his delivery seemed a little bit off his normal self. There was an odd moment where he started a routine and then very obviously bailed on it after about 10 seconds, which was unusual as he’s more polished than this. I was still surprised to see him get gonged off at the final hurdle as his material was good enough to justify him getting through and there were certainly weaker acts that made it to the final.

Nathan Newton-Willington

Newton-Willington was performing his first ever gig, the first of two comedy newcomers on the bill. As is usual under these circumstances Mike not only gave him a supportive build up, but also gave him a sweet spot, going on just after an intermission. I’m not going to say his material was especially original – all of these individual topics: an account of losing one’s virginity, pouting duck face and that there are Ladyboys in Thailand have been covered more than a few times. However, he wasn’t bad and for a first attempt he did alright, with a slightly generous audience seeing him through to the final.

David Cox

Cox had an odd night. He began with material on bears and Yellowstone park, which was a bit weak. Not offensively so, but there were just too many gaps between laughs and he may be better off dropping that as the remaining four minutes or so of his set was a quantum leap of improvement. The remainder of Cox’s material concerned activities in space and this had the feel of good, well thought out material. Unicef was a great line and it was nice to see a callback used. The visual closing gag to it, the money shot of the routine, was extremely good. If all of Cox’s set had had the mirth of the space routine then he would be much improved.

Jimbo

I’ve seen Jimbo twice before, but both of those times he was dressed as if going line dancing and he was absolutely plastered. This was the first time I’ve seen him in a normal suit and in any kind of state approaching sobriety. In contrast to the previous occasions he was funny for all of the right reasons. A lot of his jokes were based on his age, but these were generally creative and they struck a chord with the audience, although the terminal illness did go over a few people’s heads. This was a set with a lot of laughter from the audience.

Sandra Hale

Through a quirk of the running order the two oldest entrants were next to each other on the bill and this may have caused a clash if they hadn’t got completely different approaches. Hale began with a callback to Probert’s set, but as a fair amount of time had passed since he had been on, this didn’t land as well as it might have. The visual May observations were timely, but not especially deep. A lot of Hale’s set concerned sex and this material wasn’t bad, but a lot of the laughter came from the surprise of a senior citizen describing a use for sperm rather than the intrinsic comedy value of the material itself. Hale didn’t do badly, she made the room laugh and made the final, but I think her material isn’t as strong as it could be.

Mo Haroon

Haroon had an excellent night. At first I was a bit concerned for him, as the previous four acts had all been voted through to the final. Usually after a long stretch of winners the judges will be that bit harsher, as they realise that they have to vote someone off and I did think that he would have to work harder to counter this psychology. Haroon has some great material; his set is well written and very well thought out. He also had a good awareness of who was whom in the room, using a lady called India as the fulcrum for some material, making it feel very much of the now and highly relevant to the audience. Haroon was the first and only act of the night to get an applause break, earning not just the one, but three in fairly quick succession. This was a very good set that had a lot going for it and he was a very worthy winner of the night. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him and appreciated the work behind the writing.

Ben Verhoven

Verhoven, the second first timer, opened the final section of the night and he had a lot of support from the audience, with perhaps 2/5 of the room being friends of his. For a new act his material wasn’t especially bad, with the punching above his weight line being the stand out. What let him down was his delivery – Verhoven forgot his lines a couple of times and this really robbed him of momentum. However, he was well supported and did make the final, where luckily his friends did the square thing by Haroon and cheered the loudest for the funniest.

Henry Hempstead

Hempstead made the slowest start to any comedy that I have ever seen. He walked onto the stage, looking almost confused as to what he was doing, deliberately cultivating an air of the unusual. He was silent whilst doing this. He then took a drink of water prior to walking the short distance to the other side of the stage to put his glass down and then a slow walk back to the mic, which he then fiddled with in silence. This was then followed by him dodging behind the Funhouse banner, from where he finally began to speak. This all seemed to take more or less forever. Sometimes a silent stunt like this can build up the comedic tension, but in this case all it seemed to do was make some of the room mildly curious as to what he was up to and a lot, I’d imagine, irritated by it. The purpose of this was a low powered joke that opened a satirical routine about Mike Pence (Vice President of the US). A further problem with this is that Mike Pence and any foibles of his aren’t well known enough over here for an audience to readily get the observations or perhaps even to care overly much about them. This entire act was something that might have read well on paper as an arts student concept, but as a comedy set it was horrible.

Rob Callaghan

Callaghan isn’t the most experienced of acts and this came through in just how stilted and awkward he looked stood on stage. His material about his work colleague would be improved if he cut down the number of towns that he mentions, as this list was really strung out far beyond what the joke warranted and this may have explained his gonging.

Sham Zaman

I’ve had a run of seeing Zaman at almost every other gig during the last few weeks and tonight he was his usual self, surreal, lively and compelling viewing. He held the room and received solid laughs.