New Barrack Tavern, English Comedian of the Year Heat: Neil Harris, Lindsey Davies, Brian Bell, Rahul Kohli, Steff Todd, Peter Brush, Roland Gent, Chris Kehoe and Ben Wearmouth

 

Tonight I was in Sheffield at the New Barrack Tavern for this Funhouse Comedy hosted heat of English Comedian of the Year. As ever, it was a pleasure to be in this pub, as the atmosphere is always great. It was nice to see Lauren Walsh, who won a gong show there in January, present to watch the show and also to see the promoter Jules Wasley there, too. I always think it lovely when acts and promoters who aren’t involved in a show tootle along to watch. As in all of the heats, it was a case of two going through and the chance of a possible wildcard for a third. The running order was chosen at random, which gave us an impressively strong middle section and as ever, some acts drew better slots than others. Spiky Mike had a good night compering (accidentally stepping off the stage aside), where he was able to chat to people and then weave material into their responses and very soon we were ready for our opening act.

TLDR: Rahul Kohli winner by a landslide, Brian Bell surprise second, Peter Brush a not too distant third.

Neil Harris

Harris had drawn a definite short straw with going on first. He was a relaxed presence and his set largely concerned anxiety. There were some good lines in here, such as ‘documentary’ which I felt was great, although I could do without hearing any comedian say ‘I’ll tell you a bit about myself’ as this is a bit overused. The main part of the set concerned the various permutations on offer at Subway and this built up very nicely towards applause. This worked very well, because it was quite an involved routine. The mathematics were impeccable, but the convoluted nature of it did eat up time, which Harris shortened by speaking quickly to the point where he did trip over a few words. On the one hand, this joke landed so well because of the involved nature, but on the other, he might have done more with the time. I do wonder if after the first few sums, he might find shortening the last couple with some kind of take my word for it gesture or comment, he may get the same laugh in less time. As it was, this was a good opening set and Harris picked up a respectable number of votes.

Lindsey Davies

Recovering from a sore throat Davies was an act who got stronger the longer she was on stage. The examples of why her home town isn’t so nice were nothing we’ve not heard a version of about most towns, but in fairness, she received some good laughs for them, especially when she changed tack slightly and linked it into speaking of her family (Hopkins and the bottom drawer getting the biggest laughs). It was when Davies discussed dating that she really hit her stride and this section got consistent laughs and went down really well. There was one gag where she went with something like get eaten and I did wonder whether replacing it with lying there waiting to get eaten might have worked fractionally better. Towards the final part of her set Davies was given a nice comedic gift when the mic lead dropped out the bottom of the microphone and she was as quick as a flash, able to give the room a great ad libbed line that was on topic to what she had been saying and this landed extremely well. Davies held the room nicely, kept everyone’s attention and this was reflected in a very high number of votes. This was a good set.

Brian Bell

Closing the opening section was Brian Bell, an act whom I felt was a definite underdog in the heat. I’ve seen him at gong shows, where despite having a few nice ideas he’s not had much success and so I wasn’t expecting a great deal from him. At first I thought that my prediction would be borne out, as he opened with a so so Corbyn lookalike gag. However, after this he had an absolutely splendid routine about class, which had a pleasingly unusual slant on it. I’d seen an early version of this at a gong show, but this was very much the finished article and the room went with it in a big way. This routine was followed by another good one about killers and through great timing Bell was able to end his set on another strong joke. This is the best performance by Bell that I’ve seen by a country mile. Everything was far better than what I’d seen previously and it’s always nice to see an act progress in their skill. When it came to the vote, Bell did very well and was second place, making it through to the next round.

Rahul Kohli

Kohli completely ripped it. From his opening line to his closing gesture, he didn’t put a foot wrong and he was voted through as winner by a landslide. The material was punchy, it was delivered with loads of energy and enthusiasm in a way that made it look like Kohli was having a great time and in a small room like this, it was impossible for the audience not to respond with the same enthusiasm. I was particularly impressed with Kohli asking a non-rhetorical question of the audience – these can be a total minefield at the best of times and in a completion, with the clock ticking away, they are a high risk move. Luck was with Kohli, as there were three jocks present in the room and this made his Scotland routine feel almost as if it had been laid on specially for them and this gave it a massive feeling of immediacy and relevance. Kohli’s stagecraft was also worthy of note. His hands and arms seemed to be really in touch with his brain and he’d use them to emphasise whatever he was saying. This was an amazingly good set and he went through with only one person in the room not having him as one of their favourite acts of the night.

Steff Todd

After Kohli had destroyed the room, it was Todd who was in the unlucky position of having to follow him. Todd is an act who has talent and is on the way up in a way that only a fool would bet against her opening/closing nights within a short time. She’s also local to Sheffield, has played in the New Barrack Tavern a few times and is popular there, so this was all to the good. As was the fact that she has great material, a solid delivery and a startling ability to tie this all in to the audience. However, no one could have followed Kohli tonight and as it was, despite getting laughs and performing as well as I’d seen in Ashby the other week, luck wasn’t with Todd. A shame, as I had her down as a contender.

Peter Brush

Brush is a superb writer and whilst I’d say that comedians are more intelligent than average, he’s probably one of the brightest people in any room and this translates into well written, well thought out comedy, chock-full of nuance. Hence I was expecting a lot from Brush. My only question was how would he fare over seven minutes? Over twenty, I think that he would have been hard for any of the acts to beat, as he’d have had time to build his set, play with the audience’s expectations and then hit them from several unexpected directions with reveals, but over seven minutes would he be able to find his feet? The answer was that the audience were in for a treat. As expected, the material was clever and nuanced, but also more punchy than in his longer sets and he won the room over very quickly and never looked back. I liked how he played his low status, despite the comments about his build, there was a lot of subtlety involved and this was great to see. His set did close without a big bang, as I think he thought he’d run out of time fractionally earlier than he had, but I was sure he’d done enough to secure a second place. As it was, he was a close third and in with a chance as a possible wildcard entry.

Roland Gent

Gent was the most experience act on the bill and I thought he had two big things going for him. Firstly, he is a well travelled man and he can fit in local references to any place I’ve seen him gig and this gives his material a lot of relevance for an audience. The second positive was that in full stride, his delivery has the pace of a man holding a meat auction who is on a promise if he gets home early and this results in him building up loads of momentum. Tonight, though, he delivered his material more slowly and with only one local reference and as a result he didn’t make as big an impression on the audience as he might have done. Odd really, considering that I’d last seen Gent in this same room last year, where he had had a tremendous night.

Chris Kehoe

Kehoe was an act I’d not seen before and his set was a lovely surprise. He took to the stage wearing a visually arresting jacket and with his beard and hairstyle, this made him visually interesting, which gave him something of a head start in grabbing the audience. However, it was his material and delivery that impressed me the most. He was almost Wrigglesworth like in his ability to make a long and fairly verbose set up fascinating to listen to. Usually a long set up risks losing people, but instead, I was really enjoying listening to his vivid descriptions and they were a real benefit to his performance. The material was rock solid and uniquely original, with triathlon and spiders extremely well thought out. This was a very strong set that if it had been performed earlier would have received more votes than it did. Kehoe is obviously someone to watch for the future.

Ben Wearmouth

Wearmouth was unlucky in going on last in the show, as his low energy was unsuited to the slot and I think a lot of the audience didn’t buy into his performance in the same way that they might have done with a high energy comic. Predictive text made for an ok opening, but really he would have been better off with something that packed more of a wallop, as this would have established him more firmly with the audience. The majority of the material wasn’t bad, but it needed to be stronger to stand out on a night like this. The tale of the concert was another thing, that was ‘ok’ but was dangerously close to just being an anecdote. Whilst tonight Wearmouth was up against more experienced acts, who had had better luck in the draw for the running order, he may find it beneficial to workshop his material a bit to see if he can get more out of it.

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