Review: Piccadilly Comedy Club New Comedian of 2013 Final

It was the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu (604 BC - 531 BC) who said that a march of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I don't think he ever visited the Comedy Pub just off Leicester Square, but if he had popped in on Friday night to see the Piccadilly Comedy Club New Comedian of 2013 Final he would have seen eight newish stand-ups taking their first steps on a journey which they probably hope will end with fame, critical acclaim and a tax bill that would make Jimmy Carr squirm.

It never ceases to amaze me how confident new comedians seem to be these days. I've been judging these competitions for nearly two decades now and in the early days it was not unknown for acts to scamper offstage before their 10 minutes was up dry-mouthed with nerves or simply because they did not have enough material to fill those 600 seconds. Whether it is the proliferation of comedy courses, the tendency of resting actors with stage experience to try their idle hands at stand-up or simply the bravado of today's youth, but all of the acts on this bill were at the very least adequate and stood their ground. As one of the night's judges I'd have been more than happy to put a Simon Cowell-sized boot in but there were no major fails at all.

First spot is rarely easy and when you are a recent school-leaver and your parents are in the audience filming your appearance on their iPhone with a mixture of pride and embarrassment at the sexual content it would be no surprise if anxiety made you shrivel like a salted snail. So full marks to Nick Saunders for a decent if unexceptional turn. Like Daniel Sloss in his early days a hefty chunk of Saunders’ material was taken up with anecdotes about his school years and what he gets up to on the internet when his parents aren’t around. A predictable gag about the ratios of Facebook-use/porn-viewing was about as rug-pulling as it got. The boyish charm helped him get away with the cheap trick of reading amusing cuttings from the press, but he will need to clock up the miles in life as well as on the circuit to build up a decent act. No reason why Saunders can't succeed if he sticks to it, but this was not a particularly auspicious start to the night.

Eleanor Procopiu was one of the aforementioned actors dipping her toes into the choppy stand-up waters and most of her gags came from her experiences in TV drama, where her Romanian roots had helped her to land plenty of roles as East European prostitutes until those hard-working Poles came over here and started taking her jobs. Procopiu had bags of confidence and presence and for someone relatively new was not put off by a boisterous audience offering some mild backchat. As with Saunders, there was nothing here to make Procopiu stand out in a crowded market, but she was certainly a crowdpleaser on the night, getting a cheer out of the corny Nigerian accent that Omid Djalili has been doing for years.

I had high hopes of the final act of the first section as I'd heard of Sean Brightman (pictured top left) and assumed he was one of the more experienced acts. And just to declare the most trivial of conflicts of interest – he follows me on Twitter. But Brightman's Christmas pressie-related patter soon fizzled out after a neat observation that his wife had given him a onesie (which he was modelling, the fool) and his parents had given him slippers, so his wife seemed to want him to remain a child while his parents seemed to want him to be middle aged. Brightman's confidence helped to sell some pretty thin gags about Facebook status and making his TV debut in 2012 – on C4's 24 Hours in A&E. That this was one of his better quips gives you an idea of his standard. Hopefully it was an off-night. Sorry Sean, I guess you'll unfollow me now.

After the break the quality immediately went up some notches with Larry Dean. I was immediately intrigued by this twitchy, whippet-thin Glaswegian and could not make up my mind whether I loved him or hated him as he came across as a weird De Niro hybrid of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle. While he had his fair share of hack Scottish gags a genuine story gradually emerged. Dean describes himself as a "bender", his parents are gambling addicts and his brother is a priest. If half of his family details are true the press will have a field day with his back story when he makes it big, which he quite possibly could. Like fellow Glaswegian gobs Billy Connolly, Kevin Bridges and Janey Godley, Dean is a natural storyteller and his riffs soon evolved into a fascinatingly funny tale with a brilliant pay-off about his brother. In fact if he had quit there he could have closed on a bigger laugh than the one he eventually got, but the fact that Dean continued shows that he has no shortage of ideas to draw on.

After this in-your-face performance Sunil Patel (pictured right) came as a complete contrast. This stocky Anglo-Asian might have had a slow delivery but there was plenty going on in his head. His main schtick was his misanthropy and his inability to fit in. He recalled how when he did a psychological test and he was diagnosed as not having empathy he could not help but show a rare flicker of empathy by agreeing. Patel's view of life was bleak but beautifully funny as he reflected on how many people get into the wrong relationship and then find themselves trapped by a shared 12-month broadband contract. If you are the kind of cynic who thinks romance is dead you'll love Patel, who gives the corpse a good kicking.

The final act of the second section, Fern Brady, also had a glass-half-empty attitude, opening with the standard trope of mentioning the famous person they often get compared to, but at least adding a knowing twist to the formula. The rest of Brady's act homed in on her lonely life and inability to form long-term relationships. There was a sharp streak of darkness here – and sadness too, as she explained how she sometimes only shaves one leg so she can rub her shins together in bed and imagine she is with a hairy man – but this is done better by others. Danielle Ward springs immediately to mind, but it has taken years for Ward to get this jaded. Maybe Brady will get more miserable and that will make her funnier

After another interval, which made the night a little more of a long haul than it needed to be but probably made the bar owners smile, there were two more acts. It has become a tiresome cliché to discuss whether female comedians are funny. Let's just say that it was a really healthy sign that half the finalists in this competition were women. For me, and some other judges, the seventh act, Lindsay Sharman, (pictured left) was the funniest woman. Because she is posh and a little bit horsey the comparison with Miranda Hart is inevitable, but you can't knock the fact that Sharman simply has funny bones – mostly in her face, which she managed to contort into all sorts of shapes. Many of the acts tonight would have worked just as well on the radio, but a lot of Sharman’s gags had an extra oomph because of a boggle-eyed expression or twitch of the lips. But there were good gags too, whether knocking her own posh background (shades of early Miles Jupp, Will Smith and also, though this might just be me, Stuart Goldsmith) or recalling her holiday in Cambodia and finding unexpected humour in her ignorance of Pol Pot and the country's past. A future probably beckons. Unless she marries gentry and retires to breed children in the country.

And last, but not quite least, Danish Sofie Hagen, (pictured right) who is slightly overweight but took the classic get-the-gag-in-first approach and immediately congratulated the audience at the sides on being able to spend the next eight minutes looking at her rear. I think maybe part of the antipathy towards female comedians is because their material seems to circle round the same targets, often a permutation of self-deprecating remarks about weight, relationships, sex and cake. Hagen was not particularly different, but was relaxed and confident in dealing with the audience, which she needed to be when she did a routine about telling rape jokes which prompted a few gasps and divided the crowd. She might have been better off playing the Scandi-card and doing eight minutes about Sarah Lund's jumpers.

Hagen was a downbeat end to a night that showed that the bottom rungs of the comedy ladder are full of talent. Also, despite some doom and gloom about the health of the grass roots comedy scene, the gig was a sell-out. Organiser Mike Manera – who could earn a nce crust as an Austin Powers lookalike – said he could have sold it twice over. Stalwart compering by Mike Belgrave too. As for the results, the judges – including Chortle's Steve Bennett and Time Out's Ben Williams – quickly whittled out the lesser acts and soon concluded that Lindsay Sharman deserved third place. There was then a heated debate to choose between Sunil Patel and Larry Dean who seemed neck and neck on votes. Unfortunately there was only one cup and no chainsaw to divide it up so after further discussion victory went to Sunil Patel. I'd have given it to Larry Dean but I have no problem with Patel winning it. I'm sure Dean will be winning other awards in the future. Now you lot, get marching. And you'd better be quick. I've heard Lao-Tzu is working on a tight ten minutes to do at the Comedy Store next week.

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