This was the third time that a bunch of us descended (well, I suppose, ascended, considering the direction of travel) on Leicester for the last weekend of their famous Comedy Festival. Mrs Chrisparkle and I played host to Lord and Lady Prosecco, Professor and Mrs Plum, and Prinz Mark von Köln. Sadly Lord Liverpool was indisposed due to ill health, so he was tucked up in bed whilst the Countess of Cockfosters peeled him grapes. However, the remaining Magnificent Seven were greeted by beautiful sunshine and a light lunch at Pret a Manger, before heading into our first show.
Ban*na C*nts, (Work in Progress), Sian Docksey and Zoe Tomalin, Heroes @ Apres Lounge, 1pm 23rd February
Sian Docksey and Zoe Tomalin are two lively and welcoming young ladies who admit straight off that they made a mistake with the marketing. If you Google the title of their show (rest assured I have not done so, gentle reader) then you might expect you were going to see something completely different. Instead of plantain porn, we got 25 minutes or so in the company of each comic, giving us some work in progress to see how it landed.
On the whole, it landed very well. The best of the material came from Ms Docksey’s inspired consideration about the relationships between the chess pieces; I shan’t spoil it for you, but we were all hooting with laughter. There’s also a nice sequence where, in an attempt to redress the inequalities of the sexes in the workplace, men’s leadership meetings have been replaced with followship sessions. Needs a tiny bit of work, but it’s a great idea. I also loved the idea that being bisexual could be considered gay of centre.
Ms Tomalin created a lot of humour from her diminutive stature, and had a promising sequence about bra sizing, which I hope she develops (please don’t take that the wrong way.) Together they form an enjoyable partnership, although they work apart more than they work together. A very enjoyable way to start the day – in a Swiss Chalet in Leicester High Street. (No, honestly.)
Roisin and Chiara, Back to Back, Heroes @ Apres Lounge, 2.20pm 23rd February.
Next up – and in the same Swiss Chalet, with building work noise thumping away in the background, were Roisin O’Mahony and Chiara Goldsmith with their Edinburgh show from last year, Back to Back. I had read some reviews and had advised the group that sitting in the front row was probably not a good idea for this show. However, there’s absolutely no point trying to hide from these two ladies as they scour the entire audience for their prey no matter where you sit.
Prey sounds a bit cruel; it isn’t cruel at all, in fact it’s absolutely brilliant. Hugely confident, and with terrific strange presence, they present an hour of total anarchy and it’s a completely beautiful thing. Welcoming us into their lofty chalet, they assess us like two weirdos over the garden fence; then they discuss their own relationships; Roisin becomes a wolf; they stuff their mouths with marshmallows, and straddled Stephen from the fourth row (I told you there was no hiding place). Even Professor Plum had a young lady perched on his knee for some of the show. They have a range of wacky characters and voices that they adopt throughout the hour; most of it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever but who cares, it’s a sheer delight to wallow in it. We all loved them, and I’d very happily seek them out in future shows.
Then it was time to check-in at the Mercure Grand, our usual city centre abode, to enjoy a short pause and some private regrouping before meeting again for the rest of the day’s programme.
Henry Paker, Man Alive, The Cookie, 5pm 23rd February
I’d never heard of Mr Paker but we took a look at his reviews and thought this sounded a safe bet. Boy, were we right. Man Alive is the show he took to Edinburgh last summer, and is a beautifully structured, cleverly created combination of his skills as a stand-up comic, talking about married life and life in general, and his skills as a designer and illustrator.
Running through his routine as a unifying thread is a cartoon story about David, his clocks and how he’d spend his time with Nobody – it’s charming, funny and revealing. But I particularly enjoyed his material about middle class angst; deciding which is the most middle-class word in the English Language – I won’t spoil it for you, but he’s completely right and I spent the rest of the weekend self-consciously saying it to annoy the rest of our party. Amongst the rest of his material, he has some great sequences about how, although it’s lovely to spend time with his wife, it’s even lovelier to spend time without her.
He has a very relaxed and measured delivery and he’s not at all scared of leaving the occasional pause or silence, which is a mark of someone who is completely in control of their material. The hour flew by and we all agreed he is someone we have to see again!
Just the Tonic’s Saturday Night Comedy Club – Special Guest Compere, Hansom Hall, 8.30pm 23rd February
After a delicious dinner at the Kayal Indian Restaurant, we took a step back to two years ago when we saw Johnny Vegas compere a brilliant night of comedy at the Hansom Hall. He was creative, anarchic, unpredictable and a complete comedy genius. We’ll have to have another helping of that, we said. But sometimes, the old saying goes, don’t go back a second time, because you might be disappointed. And that, sadly, was the truth, gentle reader. The idea behind the presentation of this year’s special was that it would be “tag team” compering, between Johnny Vegas and Just the Tonic supremo, Darrell Martin. In practice, that meant that Johnny would do the majority of the compering and Darrell would step in when Johnny was just getting too out of hand. As a concept, it didn’t really work, because Johnny’s faithful followers didn’t want Darrell interrupting, and the bickering between the two presenters – even if it was faux-aggressive – came over as genuinely acrimonious, and not conducive to humour.
However, the big problem was that Johnny and Darrell had spent the afternoon in the pub and Johnny was distinctly worse for wear. Those creative flights of fancy from two years ago were snuffed out and replaced by uninteresting self-indulgence, and it became apparent pretty early on that this was not going to be the highlight of the weekend that we had hoped for. Indeed, someone heckled Johnny Vegas to the effect that they’d wasted their £15 for a ticket (which, to be fair, is toppy for the Festival, although not for a 150 minute show), and I couldn’t help but agree with him.
It was a shame because it put a dampener on the superb guest line-up. First up was Tez Ilyas, one of my favourite comic performers; because JV hadn’t got too out of hand by that stage, he was probably least affected of all the guests. Mr I gave us a lot of material that he has used before, but it’s ok because it’s so funny and he always does it with such a knowing twinkle in his eye. I loved his new definition of scoring 10 on the “I approve of ISIS scale”.
A new name, who was given a ten-minute slot to impress, was Matt Bragg; and I have to agree with everyone else, he is definitely One to Watch. Self-effacing, effortless, quirky and with some original material, he was a breath of fresh air and I would have loved to see more of his stuff and less from Mr Vegas. Another familiar performer was Jonny Awsum; always reliable with his musical comedy, although again with material that we have seen a number of times. Because his comedy can come across as quite silly and childlike, it felt wrong that he littered his set with lots of bad language – I’ve seen him perform before with no swearing and he’s funnier that way.
With a high reputation, and the last guests on, came The Noise Next Door, an improvisation group of four performers who act out sketches and sequences at the whim of whatever the audience chooses to chuck at them. They were excellent and we would happily see more of them another time too. The Lithuanian sketch was particularly brilliant, although that’s partially because of some inspired audience participation.
We left before seeing JV wind up the show so that we could get to our final venue on time.
Late Night Jokes On Us, Manhattan Bar, 11.30pm 23rd February
We really enjoyed this late night show last year so thought we’d try it this year too. Again, it didn’t quite come up to the standard of 2018, but there was still much to enjoy. Hard-working and upbeat host Alex Hylton introduced us to five acts, none of whom we had seen before.
First up, Rob Mulholland is, literally, a giant of comedy and I could see why he has such a great reputation. Full of fun and good-hearted attack, he had some enjoyable material and an excellent stage presence. Next was Lovdev Barpaga, whom we nearly saw in Edinburgh last year – but didn’t quite. He was crowned UK Pun Champion in 2017 and I can see why. His show is called Pun-Jabi, and he gave us ten minutes of puntastic hysteria. Really funny material and a very likeable guy.
Next was a comic whose name I didn’t properly catch, but I believe his first name was Rahul. He started promisingly, but then gave us some material based on the fact that he has a lisp; and once he’d done that, all we could hear was his lisp and not his material. As he realised the laughs weren’t flowing, he allowed himself to lose confidence, and, I’m afraid, it ended up as a pretty painful onstage death. Shame, as I’m sure he has the basis of a good act there. My advice, ignore the lisp!
Last two comics were Adam Beardsmore, who also had a very assertive and strong stage presence, with some good material; and Jack Topher, who rounded the evening off very well, but I have to confess late-night tiredness had set in and I can’t remember that much of what happened. He was good though!
The next morning we were all a bit tired because not only had we had something of a late night, but also a 6.40am fire alarm got us all scuttling out of bed and scrambling on a few clothes so that we stood in the hotel car park for about forty five minutes. No fire, but lots of firemen, which was reassuring.
Anita Elizabeth Holmes Presents, Upstairs at Kayal Restaurant, 2pm 24th February
That’s a thoroughly useless title for a sequence of comedy shows at the festival because you haven’t got a clue who you’re going to see. In fact, we spent an hour with two excellent Welsh comics.
First up was Lorna Pritchard, an ex-news reporter on Welsh TV, now full-time comedian, who struck up an excellent rapport with the audience with her cheery disposition and likeable presence. Having established that the majority of the audience either came from, or had a significant attachment to, Liverpool, she proceeded to tell one of the best jokes of the weekend about the Scouse bouncer who watched her reverse her bumper into another parked car. Very enjoyable, frothy, pleasantly undemanding humour.
The second act was Drew Taylor, a large, lugubrious presence, who told his anecdotes about life in Wales with a very strong accent to which I couldn’t always quite attune myself. But his material is excellent, and his slow and sure delivery adds to that slight caricature of a dour Welsh comic. Again, very enjoyable, and lots of laughs.
Kevin Precious, Unholier than Thou, Upstairs at Kayal Restaurant, 3.20pm 24th February
Next up – and what a find! Subtitled The Non-Believing Religious Studies Teacher, Kevin Precious takes us through life as an agnostic trying to steer his school pupils through the intricacies of comparative religion; and it’s comedy genius. From the disruptions of unwilling students, to the complex expectations of parents, it’s a fascinating insight into being simply the wrong person for the job. Mr Precious has a brilliant style of delivery; very active and energetic, with some hilarious characterisations and a superb, step-by-step dismemberment of organised religion. Now a humanist, he has a much more enlightened understanding of the world around us. I loved his excellent take on the how miracles might be considered to happen; and his general desire for empirical proof over superstition is the source for a lot of great material. Definitely One to Watch.
After a little afternoon coffee and cake it was time for our final show.
Eshaan Akbar, Prophet while it’s Hot, The Cosy Club, 6pm 24th February
We’d seen Mr Akbar supporting Dane Baptiste in Northampton a couple of years ago, so I knew he had a great comic delivery and lovely ability to take the Mickey out of himself. This is his Edinburgh show of last summer, where he basically deconstructs the content of the Quran and reveals himself to be as much an infidel as the rest of us. Taking us through some of the most important passages of the Holy Text, and the advice of the Five Pillars of Islam, he creates a hilarious blitz of the faith. Nevertheless, he also emphasises all its kindly, loving aspects, which he highlights with the hilarious account of burying his mother – he agrees, it shouldn’t really be a source for comedy, but it really is. In fact, we found a lot of his personal accounts very moving. He was a little unsure of the presence of a couple of distinctly middle-aged Muslims in the front row, whom he nicknamed Uncle and Auntie –– but they were loving it like the rest of us. An excellent, enlightening and informative show, and a terrific way to end our weekend. We’ll be back next year!