The New Act of the Year contest organised by Laughing Horse has become something of a fixture on the comedy calendar, and in previous years has produced winners who have gone on to much bigger and better things, including Greg Davies, Marek Larwood, Russell Kane and Carl Donnelly. This year’s competition started all the way back at the beginning of January, and culminates in a final in Wimbledon on May 18th.
Whether the name that joins the list of winners this year will have emerged from this, the only quarter final being held outside the London area, is debatable. There were, to my mind, three acts who might be in contention, but only two of them were selected among the four to continue to the semi finals in London, so that shows how much I know.
The acts, it must be said, had a few things to contend with on the night. Firstly there is the shape of the room, being sort of L-shaped with the stage located at the corner meant that there were two distinct audience sections parts of which were not visible to each other. More important, however, were the three Englishmen up for the rugby who sat in the front row and spent the entire evening trying to make the night all about them.
This was a problem, because the acts ranged from obvious beginners to those who clearly had a few years of experience behind them, and it handed an advantage to this latter group in that they were more well versed in dealing with these kinds of situation. Although for the most part the night was well MC’d by Jojo Sutherland, I felt she was a little at fault here for not cracking down hard on the trio and making them scared to open their mouths. On an open mike night it would be fine, a bit of audience heckling sorts out the men from the boys, but in competition I thought the performers needed a bit more protection.
First act up was Gus Tawse, whose act was rather too hesitant for my liking. His gags seemed to suffer from too much set-up with not enough pay-off. The Wee Man followed, a novelty act based around the Ned persona, a kind of Scottish Chav. He dealt well with the audience and had some inventive moments, but I can’t help feeling that his exaggerated thick nasal accent would grate on the nerves after a while.
Jill Baxter was an act I came away feeling sorry for. She seemed to have half the audience there to cheer for her, and I think it was a serious mistake. She looked nervous and hesitant from the word go, continually lost her thread, and for the most part her set was met by a stony silence and just a few chuckles.
Graham Mackie followed on after, and here one has to ask what constitutes a new act. Mackie is a veteran of the Scottish circuit, but qualified as he was doing a ventriloquist routine rather than his usual straight stand-up. The other problem I had with the act was that I never quite worked out whether it was supposed to be intentionally dreadful. I hope so, because otherwise it was unintentionally so. But even taking the former option, I think that like Les Dawson’s piano playing or Tommy Cooper’s magic, you need to be exceptionally good at something before you can make a success of doing it badly. This just came off as being a bit of a shambles, and I think Mackie should probably stick to what he does best in future.
Daniel Webster was the final act of the first section. Clearly heavily influenced by Steven Wright, his act consisted of surreal non-sequiters performed in a slow dream-like way, and here was one occasion that the heckling Englishmen did some serious damage to what could otherwise have been a very funny performance.
Barry McDonald opened the second section and for my money gave the best performance of the night. His act was polished, confident and flowed well, and although I had only seen him performing the same material the previous weekend, with the five minute time limitation for the contest he tightened it up and it worked much better than before.
Martin McAllister has a very slow style to his comedy that probably doesn’t suit a competition format. During his allotted five minutes he only managed to work his way through three gags, and perhaps if he had some quicker fire material this would have been a more sensible option. He was followed on by Geordie comic Chris Ramsay who was probably the first of the night to really take a firm control of the audience. His material was good and performed with enthusiasm and he quickly had the room on his side.
Such could not be said about Gareth Johnson. With a geeky haircut and bumfluff that could be licked off by a cat, he opened with an attempt at highbrow material by deconstructing a line of Shakespeare, before moving to the other end of the spectrum with sick humour and filth. Both committed the ultimate sin of being simply unfunny, although they might have killed at the chess club. By the end of his set the audience was left wondering that if this was a quarter final, how bad were the other acts in his heat?
Sean McLaughlin then had the difficult job of picking the room back up, and he did okay, although I think again he probably chose the wrong material, doing a lengthy routine about the fact that he has a medical condition which makes sex painful. But I got the impression that he was quite new to the stage, and has the potential to get better.
The third section of the night began with Carly Baker, a tall skinny American with flame red hair. Hers was another assured and confident performance, she made short work of the English hecklers, and performed a clever, slightly filthy set that belied her “cute soccer mom” appearance. Andy Learmonth was also good, his set appearing to be a series of one digression after another which somehow all hung together very well.
Tommy McKay is a musical comedy act who performed two songs with a guitar. The first, about things he had bought on ebay, appeared to consist just of stupid things he could think of that rhymed, while the second, about Jeremy Paxman farting on Newsnight, just seemed a bit pointless. Neither was particularly funny. Finally Jeff O’Boyle was a decent enough closing act, but some of his material seemed slightly forced, and he should probably have dropped his closing “M&S” gag for being too similar to a routine performed by one of the other comics earlier in the night.
So overall it was a bit of a night of ups and downs, and it seemed to go on forever, the results not being announced until well after midnight. But for all that, there were some very good moments, and one or two acts to keep an eye out for in future.
As for the results, Carly Baker was adjudged to have won the night, with Barry McDonald, Andy Learmonth and The Wee Man also going through to the semis. Personally I thought Chris Ramsay deserved a place, probably at the expense of the Wee Man whose appeal I see as being rather limited, but the other three choices I would have to agree with.