New Act of the Year Final 2013 review at Bloomsbury Theatre London
Now in its 26th year, this award for new comedy and variety talent has an unrivalled reputation for not giving its top prize to stars of the future. Russell Brand, Simon Amstell, Catherine Tate, and Rhod Gilbert are just a few of the names who've missed out on victory at the NATYs, only to surge to comedy heights regardless.
The 16 acts fighting it out to come third this year were a mix of no-nonsense stand-up, surreal stand-up, musical comedy, poetic comedy, and even a splash of mime. Stepping out for undoubtedly their most nerve-wracking five-minute spot to date, the professionalism from all the acts was impressive. Seasoned host Arthur Smith summed up the mood perfectly: "Nobody's died on their arse, which is disappointing."
Taking the 'Top of the Bill' title was first-placed Paul F Taylor. A hairy, well-spoken, slightly bumbling figure with a habit for self-referential asides, his set took a couple of jokes to get off the ground, but eventually soared.
The opener about how Ethiopia and Hungary should swap names was perhaps not the gag to get us all on side, but his routine about seeing a guy wearing his sweater over his shoulders proved his talent for encouraging a whole audience to see the world from his own, surreal perspective.
However, the routine that bagged him first prize was his inspired, well-worked rant about the realities of cooking that all celebrity chefs somehow avoid - "You never see Jamie Oliver wafting a tea towel at the smoke alarm, do you?" This tumbled into a sublime set-piece about a whisk getting jammed in his cutlery drawer and taking it hostage - "We don't negotiate with terror-whisks!"
It showed Taylor has a knack for taking the mundane and twisting it into something fantastical and funny; a rare kind of comedy alchemy indeed. He'd do well to ditch the annoying 'bit of banter' asides, de-clutter the act, and let the jokes speak for themselves - with material and a stage persona this strong, he just doesn't need them.
Falling short at the last hurdle, but taking home the silver medal, was the female stand-up Sam Savage, from Basildon. If her style was more straight-forward and traditional than some of her competitors, it was the sheer quality of her gags and her original turns of phrase that put Savage ahead.
Wisely, her material all worked the groove of the Essex girl from a poor upbringing, so that after just five minutes we felt we knew where she was coming from. More developed routines were mixed nicely in with a battery of one-liners - "All I want in life is a smaller forehead and some biscuits."
Her final routine on going to her local swimming pool, and sticking to the slow lane "for the people who've come for a bath," sent her out in style. There were more polished deliveries on the night - she could work on making things flow more naturally - but few acts felt like such an authentic new voice.
Blasting into the third place spot was energised stand-up Darren Walsh; a tall guy with a big talent for short jokes. Following in the footsteps of quick-fire comics like Tim Vine, Walsh has an obvious love for puns, and is seriously skilled with physical comedy.
If his opener about asking a shop assistant to wrap something, prompting them to burst into rap, lacked originality in the writing, his sharp, full-bodied delivery sold it to the crowd. Then it was onto a mix of word play and sight gags, with lines like "My cat's recovering from a massive stroke," and a joke involving whole crowd participation with the line "I just alienated the whole audience" drawing a wave of laughter.
His 'Bruce Forsyth clones' routine proved he's someone who cares about getting the timing spot-on, but in the end the comedy pay-off didn't quite match the technical achievement. In general, it wouldn't hurt for him to push his own personality forward a touch more, but Walsh showed considerable promise regardless.
Missing out on the podium places, but still making an impact on the night was deliberately low-tech stand-up Stuart Hossack. He's one of those performers who invites you to see things from their own slightly skewed viewpoint, and he's very engaging company indeed.
His set took the simple idea of imagining what a stroll through his perfect world would be, and it's testament to his comedy imagination that the joke became funnier as he went on. Perhaps his biggest laughs came from the segment where he found all his old teachers working at the till in Tescos, and then realised working behind the till was an outdated job, so they'd all be made redundant too. If he can weed out the weaker material and build on the stage persona, he's got a poetic edge that could take him a long way.
On last, but leaving a strong final impression was character musical act Quint Fontana - a singing, drinking, washed-up alcoholic crooner, and the alter ego of performer Andy Davies. On a night when lots of the acts felt a touch tense, Fontana swaggered out determined to have fun. Even a major technical hitch with his first song didn't really seem to dampen his spirits.
If anything, his between-song patter was far funnier than (what we heard of) his song lyrics. He comes, he said, from a family of alcoholics: "My father said to me, always go to a job interview pissed. Because if you can get the job pissed, you can do the job pissed." If it's not an entirely original character, Fontana was a particularly enjoyable version of it. Punch up the songs, and hone a few more killer punchlines, and this act feels like it could sustain a much bigger variety show.
A few final acts also deserving of a mention were Hackney stand-up Tony Marrase, with an inventive set that deployed call-backs and running gags with aplomb. Marrase showed a definite talent for physical comedy and verbal licks - his cat vomiting routine went down a storm - but lacked the big lines to really score. Scottish comedian Fern Brady had a wicked set of close-to-the-bone gags, and a classy poise that showed she was no stranger to the stand-up stage. What gave her the edge, though, was her closing routine on foxes in the Daily Mail - smart, sharp, and the sort of material from which she could build a whole winning show. Petite Hull comedian Nicola Wilkinson also proved she could win over an audience, and her set had nice flashes of invention - in particular her routine on online dating. However, a few of her jokes lacked a bit of oomph, and with only five minutes to score, she needed more firepower.
Bloomsbury Theatre, London, January 27
- Claire Muldoon, Roland Muldoon
- Frank Sweeney
- Cast includes
- Arthur Smith (MC), Jonny & The Baptists, Nabil Abdulrashid, Lindsay Sharman, Mark Niel, Anna Devitt, Paul F Taylor, Four Screws Loose, Fern Brady, Tony Marrase, Darren Walsh, Nicola Wilkinson, Jay Cowle, Sam Savage, Stuart Hossack, Alex Perry, Quint Fontana
- Running time