Review – the Gareth Morinan Alternative New Act competition final
A funny old night at the Wilmington Arms, partly in the haha sense, very much in the peculiar sense – but who won?
It wasn't even a proper competition. The acts knew it, organiser Gareth Morinan knew it, and if the handful of punters didn't know it, Morinan duly informed them. It was more a ruse to get bums on seats for a preview of Morinan's Edinburgh show; that took place in the first half this evening, the Alternative New Act Competition final was in the second.
Still, a final's a final – even if it wasn't preceded so much as by a semi-final, let along any heats. The location was self-styled comedy pub the WIlmington Arms in Farringdon. Drizzle, that great leveller, was sheeting down outside making everything look drab and indistinct. The 25 or so people in the audience were mainly made up by the acts, plus a pocket of asymmetrical east Londoners and a couple of bemused Austrians down near the front. We were there for some weird shit. We were ready to have our minds inexorably altered by images and concepts we never thought possible, served up by this polite rag bag of alternative comedians. We were ready to take a left at the Mighty Boosh and catch the direct train to Oddballsville.
Mixed bag, as it turns out. And not a Booshism in sight (thank god. Not a fan). Adam Larter (pictured above at the Village Green festival, Southend) walked away triumphant, deservedly so, and there were some pretty memorable performances aside from his. I also learnt a life lesson – that it is possible for something to be totally and utterly strange, yet totally and utterly forgettable.
First up was the dapper Superbard (George Lewkowicz), a useful range-finder for the evening given I wasn't entirely sure what was going on. His ambitious "Hitler 2" monologue, set to an epic 80s soundtrack and low-budget video, took some getting used to, and just as I was getting tuned in, the tech failed him. This and his forgetting a crucial prop didn't dent his confidence but he had too much to claw back to put him in contention.
A stoic if amateurish start, but Jeff Lantern (Alistair Greaves) followed and managed to raise some titters. A big man who cast himself as a basement-dwelling, anarak-wearing conspiracy theorist, this was a convincing character who delivered a few actual gags. He was another who couldn't resist the siren of the overhead projector, and put it to good use with some nice visual turnabouts. Ironically he could with projecting more.
Simon (Ian Whitfield) was a wilfully nervy act that didn't raise the roof but sufficiently beguiled the audience into granting him third place. He was a surreal poet whose delivery reminded of Gerry Howell, using his verse to pit tigers against fish and Catherine Zeta Jones against Lisa Riley. The material left me a bit cold but the character showed promise, dressed as he was in over-sized suit with George Michael stubble and a mild Neil Hamburger/Peter Baynham-like repulsiveness. He couldn't look us in the eye – what was he hiding I wonder?
No such coyness from the Chris Addison-cheeked Joseph Davies, who bounded on to announce he was going to prove he was the "complete comic" by ticking off its various disciplines like musical comedy and impressions – except in a way that heaped awkwardness upon silence. It was the kind of anti-comedy (for want of a better term) that's popular at the moment but which is usually more of a crutch than an act. Doing sarcastic approximations of mainstream comedy is not, I repeat not, very alternative or very funny.
Up next was Lucy Ayrton, who was a pretty pro performer, though not really a comic and in fairness wasn't really trying to be one. She's a poet, and devoted her 5 minutes towards a single poem that silenced the crowd (with concentration, not awkwardness). It was an riposte to haterz of her feminism, which got angrier as it went on. There were some attractive lyrical flourishes, but it wasn't comedy.
I really rather enjoyed Michael Brunstrom. He'd had a bowl full of Andy Kaufmann for breakfast, and burped out a wonderfully absurd set in which he bit the legs off a toy heron to a kind of melancholic jazz ballad, as a tribute to Alexander Fleming. "Go on Michael! Eat the heron's legs, EAT THE HERON'S LEGS!" cried the gallery. The fact that he resembled an ungamely European classical conductor having the time of his life, only wove more magic in my opinion. More of this please.
Ian Miller travelled all the way from from Dagenham in Essex to demonstrate that things really have come full circle in comedy. Ladies and gents, blue is back! After an opening gag that Jim Davidson probably would've deemed a bit much (and needs to be ditched, to be honest), Miller produced some "dirty" Superman and A.L.F. posters that found the audience's base funny bone. Easy comedy but fair play, it was effective. Then the very walls of the Wilmington creaked and groaned as he wheeled out some clichéd jokes that relied on shock tactics or an "it was my Dad!"-type reveal.
Jack Gardener's set was so heavily indebted towards Harry Hill and Tony Law that it was rendered pointless.
A recent support act for Dr Brown, K-Bob (Katie Bridgit O Brien) had clearly been watching closely. Her diving goggles-wearing pharmacist character was very much of the Brown, but probably too much of a slow burner to have much impact in 5 minutes. However the crowd took to it eventually, especially after she ventured into the crowd to harass people. This was a character she devised specifically for the final, so the girl's got balls. Similarly to Simon (the third act), laughter was intermittent but there was enough interest, skill and charm to nab a podium position. K-Bob is off to the Phillippe Gaulier clown school in Paris (alumni: Dr Brown, Sacha Baron Cohen, Holly Burn), which will no doubt add a few strings to her bow. One to watch etc.
How to describe Mark Silcox's 5 (7? 8?) minute set? He introduced himself as an Irish science teacher, although this information didn't appear to have any bearing on the material. What followed was a perfectly charming story about how he passed his driving test. Charming, but agonising, as a joke forever seemed just around the corner. We waited and waited, the tension almost unbearable – but it never came. The gagless set.
The final act of the evening, and the eventual winner, was Adam Larter, who hosts the regular Weirdos show in Kings Cross. I've got a real soft spot for Larter and while he probably couldn't yet survive in a weekend comedy club in the way Pat Cahill can, he's definitely got lots of promise. For starters, commitment to an idea, and infectious enthusiasm, plus he clearly doesn't give a fuck what people think about him. His set tonight was a firework display via the medium of props and home-made costumes, set to an air-punching pop track. Basically, he brought a sense of fun and occasion to the gig that no one else managed. People went with him on this bizarre firework odyssey, and that ability to persuade is a valuable asset. He's simultaneously masculine and incredibly camp, chaotic yet under control. Big fan.
A word on Morinan's MCing, which was too apologetic and sarcastic to really get the audience going, but he found more success when taking the piss out of the acts.
One final learning from the evening – never leave a room full of alternative comedians unattended. Morinan and I can't have been away from the stage for more than five minutes to count the audience votes, but when we emerged from the basement, Larter was onstage bashing away at the piano in a kilt, some other dude was on stage chipping in but ultimately sans agenda, and the rest of the room watching on with increasing alarm. "Please hurry up. Make them stop," one comic said to us.
So Larter won – congratulations to him – K-Bob came second with Simon third. The big prizes on offer were half a pint of cider, £1.50 (cash) and a joint. A funny night, partly in the haha sense, very much in the peculiar sense – which I guess was the idea.
Then out I went. Hoodie up, head down, back into the London drizzle, where the only thing to stand out was the loose flock of fluorescent workmen that hangs around Farringdon station these days.