Live Review: New Comedian of the Year, Leicester Square Theatre

Tis the season to win comedy competitions in London. There was a final last weekend, this one this weekend and at least two more next weekend. By the end of December if you haven’t won a competition maybe you need to have a rethink or work harder. 

 

The Leicester Square competition certainly ran smoothly. Compere Richard Herring had already hosted two podcast interviews at the venue in the afternoon but did a great job running on a mix of adrenaline and Heineken. After a lively opening warm-up he rattled through his introductions to the 14 entries. Sometimes his intros were so fast the closing applause of one act merged into the welcoming applause for the next, but when you’ve got 14 acts and an audience with work the next morning that’s exactly how compering should be.

 

First up was Jo D’Arcy. She seemed a little nervous but was also playing a nervy, heightened version of herself so it didn’t really matter. Much of her allotted five minutes was given over to anecdotes about her time as a schoolteacher and some of the awkward situations she got into with adolescent boys. D’Arcy certainly had funny bones and a clownish sensibility, a little like a female Rik Mayall at times. And it’s not every day you hear a joke combining a certain scene in Taxi Driver with breastfeeding. She was one of my favourites (I was a judge) and while unplaced on the night could well go places.

 

Second up was Bilal Zafar, whose routine was based around a hashtag campaign he had become involved in earlier this year. He didn’t really do stand-up, he just read out the exchanges between himself – posing as a Muslim cake shop owner – and some increasingly angry nationalistic tweeters. The tension of the story was neatly undercut with references to lemon drizzle cake and it certainly had a beautiful pay-off, giving Zafar the last word. He picked up second place and £500. Don’t spend it all on lemon drizzle.

 

Louise Reay was the first oddball of the night, coming on speaking Chinese and then explaining, via placards, that her whole act would be in Chinese. It could easily have been seen as racist, but Reay was more of an absurdist. I didn’t think it was offensive, maybe if I was Chinese – and very sensitive –  I might have felt differently. The main problem was that it did not quite work and there weren’t enough laughs. Reay slightly shot herself in the foot by getting a punter up onstage who didn’t quite play ball. If it had come off the whole act might have worked better. Instead she had to do the awkward thing of gathering up her placards while Richard Herring was introducing the next act in front of her. (FYI - after this review appeared Reay contacted me to say that her Edinburgh show was sponsored by the Confucius Institute at the University of Edinburgh, which is funded by the culture department of the Chinese government. Here's some more info on it). 

 

The next act, by one of those quirks of running orders, was Japanese comedian Yuriko Kotani, who had a very good joke about people speaking to her and assuming that she is Chinese. Kotani won the BBC Radio New Comedy Award last week and this shorter set – basically the routine about the British being lazy and inefficient and using the word “ish” – felt tighter and sharper. Yet somehow there wasn’t quite the same alchemy this time round, though there was still enough to win third place. It will be interesting to see her do new material and a longer set in 2016.

 

The final act of the first third was Svetlana The Oligarch’s Wife, which is a character that pretty much writes itself. Svetlana (Laura Bodell) had plenty of scripted gags about living in Knightsbridge and having way too much money and power and when her sound person missed a cue she lobbed in a great ad lib about them dying in a tragic accident after the show. It was expertly performed but maybe lacked the spark of originality beyond the basic premise that would have landed Svetlana a placing. Still, she looked as if she did not need the £1000 prize anyway. 

 

The first act of the second section, LJ Da Funk was certainly the audience favourite. This was another character – a haughty, blinged up boy from the hood, played by newcomer Zak Splijt. At first he seemed to get laughs out of sheer force of personality and shouting, but gradually there was more depth and subtlety. Whenever he told a joke that did not quite hit the spot he suggested the audience look it up online and enjoy it retrospectively. He also had the nice running gag of saying “She/he had no rejoinder to my jape” – which felt like something Tarantino (or Reg Hunter) might use. There’s been a bit of a post-victory debate online about whether Da Funk is sexist, but that didn’t seem to be the case in his deceptively clever set on the night, which won him first prize from the judges.

Review continues here.

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