Review – Comedy Knights New Act Competition final

12 new comedians all hell-bent on world domination, convening at the Garden Bar in Latimer Road with their eyes on TOP PRIZE. Here’s what happened …

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From left: Bobby Carroll, Richard Stainbank, Ian Lane, Laura McClenaghan, Joel Dommett (front), Adam Race, Jenny Collier, Chris Betts (back), Jack Gardner, James Shakeshaft, Darren Walsh (back), Tom Holmes and Bethan Roberts.

The circuit isn’t short of new act competitions, but there can’t be many that are run with the same care and attention as Bobby Carroll’s. The Comedy Knights New Act Competition is in its first year and involved 250 acts competing across the country, a process that Carroll said in his post-final speech was like “sifting for gold” and where most of it, he said with Malcolm Hardee-esque candour, was “daft nonsense”.

The final was strong though, and had a mix of stand-up styles, so plenty to be optimistic about. And this was a real tester for the comics, given they had to contend with cutlery-bothering kitchen staff and a mic that unluckily took a turn for the fuzzy moments before the start of play.

As one of the judges on the night, it was partly my job to pick a winner, and as it happened it was a unanimous choice between Julia Chamberlain (Highlight Comedy), Jo Williams (PBJ Management) and myself.

Richard Stainbank opened proceedings, introducing himself as an archetype of modern Britain – a bright graduate who’s jobless and going to waste, though this could be to comedy’s advantage as he has taken very easily to stand-up. He has a world-weary, unenthusiastic demeanour a la Jo Brand and his set really unfurled as he broke free from solipsistic self-deprecation (something many new comics don’t manage). He has some great lines, including a neat take-down of the famous Winston Churchill sense of humour that went down particularly well with the crowd. There were other names in the hat for runner-up, but Stainbank deservedly nipped in by a nose.

(Credit to Bobby Carroll for putting on Luke Graves as an extra warm-up act inbetween the host (the ever-jolly Joel Dommett) and Stainbank, to give the dreaded first slot half a chance. Sure enough, Stainbank took full advantage of Carroll’s foresight and consideration.)

Up next was James Shakeshaft, who you’ll either find charming or a bit smug depending on how much you take to him and his slightly clever-dick comedy. And I liked it – extracting laughter from subjects such as competitive eating and punctuation show an imaginative streak and a disregard for cliché that will serve him well. He got a warm-ish response, his wafty mic craft not helping anyone, and there’s room for improvement in the actual gag writing but plenty of promise here.

The sheer clubbiness of Tom Holmes‘ set made him stand out from the pack, as it’s not the most fashionable comedic style these days. Unfortunately he didn’t take his chance – he’s an affable geezer and you can feel him hammering home his “cheeky chappy” credentials too forcefully when he’s likeable enough as it is. The material needs the most work though, his Lady Gaga and star ratings jokes falling short in a final that contained some sharp writers.

Jenny Collier’s tales of singledom and working at a fertility clinic contain some good lines but Collier didn’t give them a chance to shine tonight. It was a slightly hurried set and she would have benefited from boosting the vocals a bit into the fuzzy mic, so it seemed some jokes passed the room by. Still, Collier has a strong set and a strong persona and she’s heading in the right direction.

Darren_Walsh1Darren Walsh (left) stands at 6ft 8in and has a burgeoning reputation in the comedy world – and tonight was the funniest and most consistent I’ve seen him. His comedy is a mix of one-liners, Harry Hill-esque horsing around, sight gags and musical snippets. Somewhere in the middle were three gags in a row, told in a 30-second spell that effectively brought the competition to an end, there and then. Some of the jokes were dodgy, but shamelessly so – he built up easily enough credit with the good stuff and his easy-going personality, that he could get away with such groaners. The crowd loved him and so did the judges – a clear winner.
[Pic taken in February 2013; he isn’t always covered in crisps]

Much like Stainbank, Ian Lane started a little slowly but got better as he went along – a good sign for sure. He hangs off the mic like an aloof lead singer, which seems a little contrived but it seems to work, and it turns out his material is strong enough to make you forget any affectations. It’s very pleasing to see someone have the confidence to really take their time, and with some unexpected punchlines in the back pocket. He wasn’t a smash hit with the audience, but I certainly liked him. Another near-miss for the runner-up spot.

Jack Gardner was the oddest act of the night, and I don’t think it was his oddness that threw the audience necessarily, I just don’t think the set was up to scratch. His persona is a cut-n-shut of Harry Hill and Tony Law and it’s not convincing or disciplined enough to sweep you along – in fact he was much more engaging in the moments when his mask momentarily slipped, so you wonder whether it’s necessary at all. Both his missing cat hotline routine and his bizarre Miss Betty Blue Eyes prop grab your attention but then fall away. Gardner has the balls to try something different and I commend that, but I don’t think this persona works as it is.

Comfortably one of the most assured and least raw of the finalists, Chris Betts had a good gig. The droll Canadian was one of few who you felt had much more to give by the end of his set. That’s partly in due to his unhurried delivery that reeled the audience in. It was low-energy, but they responded to his unflappable stage presence and classy routines, particularly on a 9/11 call centre. Bigger things surely beckon, and on the night he was in the running for second place.

Bethan Roberts was one of the newest of the newbies on show tonight, but she was also one of the coolest customers. From someone so new you can’t expect fireworks and her material does need to go up a few notches, but the crowd certainly warmed to her laid-back, classy demeanour.

It wasn’t Laura McClenaghan’s night, though that doesn’t change the fact that she’s a terrific new comedian. She gradually reveals an unfriendly, semi-psychotic streak, and when she tells you how she’d like to deal with people she hates in the same way she treats sugar, you believe her. And it’s very funny. Throw in her story of being accused of giving the wrong change and you have someone with arguably the best material of the night, but it didn’t quite fly. It was another set where you re-noticed the mic problem and she either didn’t realise or didn’t adjust. So there’s perhaps work to be done on McClenaghan’s stagecraft, but nothing that more gigging won’t fix. I know I’d book her.

10 out of 10 for effort from Adam Race, but he needs some substance to bolster the style. His attempts to show his ultra-bookability by demonstrating the various disciplines of comedy, signing off each one with a big tick, was bold but no amount of peacocking or roguish charm can hide a lack of good material. If he matched his hard work on the stage with the same on the page then things might start to happen for Race.

Saskia Preston was an interesting one. If you could penetrate the contrived anxious persona (the sort Milton Jones used to use more heavily), you will have found some really smart gags in Preston’s set. There were some duff ones too, but an up-and-down set is to be expected from a one-liner comedian. Preston exacerbates this though by frequently pausing to appraise how each joke has done, which undermine’s the crowd’s confidence in her, and there’s way too much “err”-ing. The constant tone of stress might also become pretty unrelaxing to watch over a longer set. So a few things to address but Preston showed she can be a superb gag-writer and is certainly one to watch.

Bobby Carroll presented Darren Walsh with £300 and Richard Stainbank £100, as well as a new notepad as encouragement to keep on writing – the sort of nurturing and big-hearted gesture that sums up the way Carroll runs his comedy gigs, so hats off to him also.

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