Tonight I was in Ashby for another Funhouse hosted English Comedian of the Year heat. These have been uniformly superb shows, with some of the best up and coming comedians in the country taking part and tonight featured a wonderfully strong and artistically diverse bill. There were three acts that I’d not seen before, but there is quite a buzz around one of these and so I was especially looking forwards to seeing her. Numbers were very good, too, which added to the atmosphere, but as is generally the case in these heats, the voting was a trifle one-sided as the audience were voting for their favourite three acts. This meant that theoretically someone could be the 4th favourite of 100 people and not get a single vote, whereas equally theoretically someone who 20 people loved and 80 just wanted to finish as soon as possible would get 20 votes. Tonight, though, the votes weren’t that one-sided and every act bar one picked up a good respectable amount.
Stephen Carlin – winner by a big majority
Lindsey Santoro – a very impressive second
Tom Houghton – a strong third
Haroon is a good act, who doesn’t have a huge profile in the industry, which is a shame, because he is a skilled comedian and has always done well when I’ve seen him. Tonight, I did wonder if he had drawn the short straw in opening, but his material is such that it would work equally well first or last. His opening joke initially felt a bit wordy on the set up, but it was worth it for the reveal and his second joke, which rolled off from the first, gained him a very early round of applause. Haroon’s writing is first rate and his references were topical, which really helped them to land well. The intelligent writing ensured that Mo did very well, gaining a lot of laughs. The only bit that I didn’t think worked as well as it might have was ‘Wales’ which felt a bit flat in comparison, but that’s a minor point. Haroon’s low energy delivery wasn’t quite as strong as his material and I did wonder if a more deadpan approach would be worth exploring, but that is something perhaps for the future. Tonight he did very well and despite the audience having seen a lot of acts between him and the vote, he did well when it came to people remembering to vote for him.
Going on early in a competition can run the risk of being forgotten by the audience, but there was no chance of anyone forgetting Katie Pritchard. Between the props (Joan of Arc with helmet, axe and fake cigarette in holder [a charming touch]), the singing and the sheer amount of fun that Pritchard exudes, no one was going to forget her in an hurry. Her set was splendidly different and stood out. In the 7 minutes allotted to each comedian she used the time to give the room two songs, one about Joan of Arc and another about Lettuce to the tunes of Bonnie Tyler and Beyonce. Both of these songs were very good and I really enjoyed the asides. I did feel that Katie may have slightly split the audience a touch and might have been better with a bit more chatting as the few people who weren’t onboard for the songs had nothing else to get their teeth into. However, the majority of the room were with her and people were crying with laughter. This was a very good set from someone who is on their way up in the world.
Houghton was my favourite to win the most votes. He was one of the few acts on the bill who would be just as dangerous over twenty as he would be doing seven. He has great punchy material, a flamboyant delivery and has the sort of charisma that wins people around in next to no time. Tonight he began well with a quick spot of room work, before moving onto some new (to me) material about the names of groups of people and this was a brilliant start. He then moved on with even better material. This was peppered with asides to Ed, sat on the front row and everything he was saying was getting a laugh. The closing routine was a magnificently brave choice: an audience sing-along, with Ed the recipient of his own anthem. Getting the audience involved could have backfired, but there was never a doubt that they wouldn’t play along with Houghton and this paid off handsomely. I was sure that Houghton was going to hoover up almost every vote, but when it came to the vote counting he finished as a strongly supported, but surprise 3rd place.
We resumed after the intermission with Harry Miles, who despite being in a good slot didn’t really capitalise on it. His opening joke wasn’t that great and when he followed that up with getting each half of the room to cheer it didn’t lead into anything and this ended up feeling a bit inconclusive. Diabetes wasn’t bad, but when discussing his brother and exposure he had probably his best line of the night. Films was good, but in going with three different takes on the joke he approached overkill and would probably have been better tapping out after the first one and using the time gained more constructively. This was a pretty pedestrian set that tonight didn’t really cut the mustard and on a bill with such talented acts it simply wasn’t enough to capture the imagination of the audience.
Carlin was the most experienced act on the bill and this showed with an excellent set. His topics would have sounded a trifle grim on a read through, but his superb writing got the most out of them and his delivery really brought them to life. Heroin had an odd kind of logic to it and gay was very good indeed. This was a set that built up to a very powerful climax, gaining a couple of rounds of applause on the way. When it came to the vote counting, Mike had to stop, as it was obvious that pretty much everyone in the room had voted for Carlin.
Santoro had an absolutely smashing night. Her down to earth charm and more near the knuckle content struck a real chord with Ashby, despite them usually being a touch reticent about sexual material. She began well by addressing her accent and followed it up with the skilful use of pausing and letting the audience fill in the missing word. The topper on hole was brilliant and ring size (a personal favourite of mine) landed beautifully, seeming to shimmer on the edge of applause. This was a very impressive performance that had obviously been appreciated by the audience. I had enjoyed the set, but wasn’t sure how the voting would actually go, but in a lovely show of appreciation Santoro picked up 68 votes and finished in second place, between two pro acts. By any margin, that is absolutely smashing.
There is quite a buzz around Hart and so I was especially interested in seeing her perform and I’m very pleased to say that she didn’t let anyone down. She had a good opening line and this led into a strong set. Her intonation on ‘nothing’ was superb and this made the line work all the better. Her Scottish accent was well thought out (the apology to the Scottish Stephen Carlin was a nice touch) and this built up very well. Hart managed to make Alaska seem almost exotic as she briefly discussed small town life. Hart was one of the acts that would have benefited from a longer spot, as her closing routine was definitely spectacular, but it really ate into the amount of time she had and I couldn’t help but wonder if she may have been better off tonight, going with shorter and more punchy material for the last 3 minutes or so. However, despite not winning tonight, I really liked what I saw and would like to see Hart do a longer set as it is obvious that there is definitely some gold here.
I’d only seen Bakanov a couple of times before and he had impressed me both times and so it was no surprise that he impressed me again, tonight. His writing is very good and his material is certainly well considered. It was evident that he could read the room well, too. Bakanov’s opening line was solid and he never really looked back from that. His material concerned his heritage, his girlfriend, Brexit and racism and it had a lovely refreshing feel to it – this all felt like something new and unique. Bakanov was the only act to drop the C bomb, which can be a risky move in Ashby, but because the room liked him, he thrived on it. I was happy to see him have the confidence to ask an open question to an audience member and even happier when he didn’t get bogged down in the reply. A lot of the tone of Bakanov’s set was pretty grim, but he delivered it with a big grin that disarmed any possible harm that this may have done. There was a lot of laughter during this performance and I thought that Bakanov might have edged getting into the top three, but despite getting a lot of votes he didn’t make it.
Feilder came to the stage and for the first minute or so rode the wave of good will created by Bakanov, but aftet that it was his own skill that kept the energy levels flowing. Feilder spoke about drinking and Nutri-bullets and there was a lot of good stuff in here, all being delivered with a bouncy charm. I especially enjoyed the couple of different ways he name checked Ashby de la Zouch, with ‘A de la Zee’ being a crowd pleaser. Despite going on last when the audience had seen 8 other acts and were perhaps a bit laughed out, Feilder still did very well.