A full six months ahead of London’s 2012 Olympic extravaganza, another display of endurance, sweat, and probable performance enhancing drugs graced the stage in Stratford. Still homeless, and sponsor-less, two years after the Hackney Empire closed its doors, the most important show of the year for new comedy and variety talent had for the first time been scaled down to fit the more snug surroundings of Stratford Circus.
Perhaps that made the scale of the task for the finalists seem a little less daunting, and the atmosphere a little less electric. Somehow, though, this event’s generous spirit and flashes of chaos, always teetering gloriously close to shambolic, survived intact.
The formula, as ever, remained simple - 14 acts, all box fresh, all taking the mic for five of the most important minutes of their careers to date. It was this new talent Olympics’ most varied line-up of recent years, including sketch comedy, stand-up, drag acts, comedy songs, and bearded musical surrealism, all presided over by comedy’s own grumpy Sue Barker, MC Arthur Smith.
First over the line was Patrick Cahill. Preferring a softer, more unassuming approach to many of his contemporaries, he nonetheless outclassed the competition by stealth. Throwing the crowd off-kilter from the off by sporting a homemade, hands-free coat hanger mic holder, Cahill then hurtled through five sublime minutes of material.
From a beautifully pitched bit of performance, as he extended the old saying ‘Beer then wine, fine…’ into an increasingly drunken, delightfully inventive confessional, he slipped into an inspired routine about a multiple poultry ‘roast-off’ with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall - a highlight of the night.
It was a set that crackled with energy, as Cahill forced the crowd to keep up with his galloping, warped philosophies, but made sure he never left them behind. It’s a real talent that can turn an intelligent, eloquent idea like ‘Spontaneous Acts of Inward Malevolence’ into a crowd pleasing routine with a rich laugh count.
While there are echoes of Alan Davies in his ‘everyman with a razor-sharp brain’ persona, Cahill seems like he could grow into a truly original comedy voice. If anything, it would have been nice to get to know a bit more about what makes him tick. Still, considering he’s a seriously funny and inventive stand-up, there should be plenty of time for that.
Grabbing the silver spot on the podium was Mark Stephenson. Almost swallowed by his huge chunky red cardigan, this young stand-up was another breath of fresh air. His middle-class slacker guise was so understated and casual, he was the only performer on the night who got laughs for just standing there.
Stephenson’s material was contemporary, fresh, and laced with potent doses of social satire. Imagining tweets made by today’s young revolutionaries, he quoted: “Let’s smash the state!… LOL.” There were swipes at rudderless office jobs too, him mustering zero enthusiasm for ‘doing the working’ and self-important business idols like Lord Sugar. Stephenson said the reason Sugar is always seen in a helicopter at the start of The Apprentice was because “he has to stay airborne for 18 hours a day for tax purposes”.
It’s a testament to Stephenson’s confidence in his own talents that he was bold enough to look barely bothered, finishing with a throwaway: “That’ll do.” Perhaps slightly tighter choreography of his nonchalance would give him even more impact and mine more laughs. Nonetheless, Stephenson feels like he’s custom built for the twitter generation of comedy fans.
Taking home the bronze medal was female musical comedy duo Adams & Rea. They were perhaps the tightest act of the night - much of the delight in their brilliantly random songs coming from the pair working off each other.
Their opener, about a library book overdue for 79 years, warmed things up nicely. For this reviewer’s money, however, their middle song was the highlight - a barnstorming bump ‘n’ grind faux educational track about picking up litter. Lines like “separate your plastics” were made slap-the-seat-in-front funny by Adams & Rea’s superb vocal performances and brilliant physicality.
That was always going to be hard to top, and their third song, a musical ode to the film Silence of the Lambs, didn’t quite manage it. It did, though, show that this duo isn’t afraid to do its own, sometimes random, thing and ask the audience to come along with them. Perhaps of all the acts, Adams & Rea would have the versatility and inventiveness to hold an audience for a full headline show - classy stuff.
Missing out on the top prizes, but surely clipping at the medal winners heels, was 25 year old Canadian stand-up Bobby Mair. This self-confessed paranoid geek introduced himself as looking like a high-school mass murderer and his accomplished set was shot-through with gleefully dark streaks.
Things really sprang to life when Mair was in his natural territories of comic book movies and tales of near-psychotic rage. His plea to X-Men’s wheelchair-bound telekinetic master Professor Xavier to just “move your legs with your mind” brought the house down.
Wisely, though, he balanced his rage at others with self-conscious deconstructions of his own insecurities - he said the fact he was adopted and didn’t know who his birth mother was “makes it hard to enjoy a lapdance”.
Mair exudes a kind of effortless awkwardness that has served some of stand-up’s greats so well down the years, and yet brings to it something fresh and downright disturbing. A bright, dark future surely awaits.
Worthy of a mention too was another Canadian comic - female musical stand-up Mae Martin. Comparing herself physically to Justin Bieber, this crop-mopped performer’s greatest strengths were her talent for finding the funny in life’s mundane little details, and crafting some genius turns of phrase.
If anything, with clearer punctuation of her gags, Martin could have squeezed more from the material she had. For instance, her routine comparing feeling young and directionless with Frodo’s quest in the Lord of the Rings was superb, but felt a bit rushed. Still, her closing song about a love affair with actor Don Cheadle was a quirky joy, and Martin’s strong stage persona feels like one that could take her all the way.
Providing a splash of the surreal was the Electro Future Beard Club - two dancing gents in shiny grey suits, poker shades and, of course, facial hair. There was more than a sniff of Reeves and Mortimer coming off the stage with these two, and in a good way. If anything, they could have gone much further with their surreal bits, and broken their song about London down completely. As it was, lines about London being a rubbish fairground, with only one Ferris wheel, and the Queen being lazy - “At least do the bins love!” - got them a healthy quota of laughs.
A final mention to the final act of the show, The Fabulous Russella. To say this drag act was category-defying would be an understatement. However, while five minutes of miming to Christina Aguilera might not sound much, add in dancing, doing the splits, and making a pancake from scratch using a portable hob and frying pan, and hopefully it explains why I laughed. A lot. If she doesn’t get herself to the front of the Britain’s Got Talent audition queue right now, she’s even madder than she looks.