A packed De Montfort Hall were treated to a strong and varied line-up last night for the official Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival 2013 preview show. There was a mixture of old and new, well-known and not so well-known, deadpan and lively, the everyday and the bizarre, so hopefully even the biggest comedy snob would have enjoyed some of the show. I, being a fellow of eclectic tastes, enjoyed pretty much all of it, but in very different ways.
The whole show was marshalled by Dave Spikey, who kept the audience laughing throughout the night with a combination of 'plain-speaking Northerner' observational material, good-natured mockery of song lyrics and badly written obituary adverts, with some old-fashioned working men's club-style 'blue' material thrown in. His story about an embarrassing hospital shaving incident, in particular, had the audience in stitches. He also lent a mildly 'holiday camp showbiz' air to proceedings, with his lengthy introductions that were full of praise for the acts and regular attempts to appear sincerely amazed at what a wonderfully varied bill it was.
That 'eighties holiday camp' feeling peaked when out came opening act Jimmy Cricket. He may not have changed his act very much in 40 years, and he may get more groans than out-and-out belly laughs for many of his daft one-liners these days, but there was definitely something magical about seeing this figure from my childhood still jigging around the stage, and beckoning the audience to "C'mere" as he used to on TV in the 1980s. His act is truly old-school variety - we had Tommy Cooper-style bad magic, impressions, some quite impressive 'juggling impressions', and plenty of kids' jokebook-style set-up-and-punchline gags, about which he seemed self-aware enough to know that many of them were groansome, and indeed revelled in the fact. One to take the kids to see, and definitely one to tick off the list of people you never thought you'd see live.
Then came relative newcomer Pat Cahill, whom I was looking forward to, having seen him do a short spot at The Y last year. He has a very unique take on the world and spouts unusual pearls of wisdom at a frantic pace, barely stopping for breath during his whole set. His onstage persona is best described as 'that guy down the pub who thinks he's figured out all the secrets of the universe and won't shut up about it, yet you can't help wondering why, with all this knowledge, he's still always down the pub every night and not working for NASA or something'. Reminiscent of a younger Sean Lock, his observations are rooted in the everyday and the mundane, but his brain always takes a left turn and leads you somewhere you never expected to be. Very enjoyable indeed.
The highlight of the first half for me was another newcomer, Matt Rees. I hadn't seen him before, but was very impressed with his downbeat, measured delivery, self-deprecation and world-weary observations. This style, coupled with smart routines about being a fat, lazy slob seemed to tap into everybody's own sense of guilt about their own bad habits - especially in a month like January when half the population is trying in vain to change themselves into teetotal fitness nuts. He was a big hit with the crowd and it's easy to see why he won the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year competition last year. Sadly he isn't doing a show at this year's festival and there were audible "aaaaahs" of disappointment in the room when he announced that fact, showing how, in a very short space of time, he had captivated the audience.
Before the interval we were treated to another veteran comic legend - the grandaddy of musical comedy, Mr John Shuttleworth. With his trusty Yamaha portable keyboard and a selection of kitsch preset rhythms and silly sound effects, he performed a selection of his more well-known songs - my favourite being a jaunty number about the traumatic experience of having two tubs of margarine on the go in the fridge. His songs, finding humour in the tiniest of everyday situations such as buying a toaster on eBay, or not being able to go back to eating savoury food after pudding, were warmly received, as were his little asides and confused mutterings when things went slightly wrong. The crowd, so often the case in Leicester, were a little reluctant to join in his songs, but that didn't stop it being a fittingly upbeat end to a strong first half.
Suzi Ruffell strutted on stage next in her skinny jeans, to do some fairly straightforward observational material about relationship break-ups, the perils of mixing drinking with social media, and showcased a strong talent for accents and mimicry. She's young, likeable and definitely very TV friendly (I can see her fitting in very well on Channel 4's Stand Up for the Week, for example), but for me her pretty standard material felt a little bit flat in the middle of so many inventive and offbeat acts.
Next up was Gary Delaney. You know what to expect with Gary Delaney, he's a one-liner man through and through, but he's about the best there is in terms of the well-crafted nature of his gags. A good mix of inventive misdirection and puerile wordplay blends well with a manner that gives the impression he's really enjoying himself up there. He's also very complimentary to the audience, constantly congratulating them for 'getting' his gags and thus making them more feel intelligent and special, which I'm sure adds to his popularity and ensured that he received the usual rapturous applause upon leaving the stage.
The final billed act was definitely the strangest, in the form of Canadian Tony Law, who seems to be looking odder and odder as time goes by. He now has the appearance of a drunken eccentric in a city-centre bus station, himself describing his look as part Viking, part Pirate. His act is essentially observational stand-up, but of the very oddest kind - each observation gets whisked off on a magical and tangential journey full of crazy shouting voices, surreal asides, impossible scenarios and dandyish posturing. Particularly impressive amongst this parade of enjoyable nonsense were his range of English accents and his lifelike portrayal of an elephant stampede in a bar, from the point of view of the humans and then again from the elephants' perspective.
And as if nine acts plus compere wasn't enough, there was an extra special surprise at the end - a real treat for fans of the alternative comedy scene that exploded in the eighties, in the form of The Greatest Show on Legs. Founder member Martin Soan (right) was joined by regular Bob Slayer (left) and guest Pat Cahill (not pictured) to perform their infamous naked balloon dance, which heralded a wonderfully chaotic end to the show as Martin attempted to tell jokes completely naked on stage, whilst Bob Slayer ran amock through the audience, posing, occasionally shouting, or climbing over uncomfortable audience members wearing only his socks. The laughs were then mixed in with gasps of terror when Slayer started running along the thin ledge surrounding the upper circle of the theatre, often becoming unbalanced as he ran, and the audience watched in hysterical fear to see if he could make it all the way around without falling to his death in the stalls below. He finally returned to ground level and made his exit after stealing an audience member's handbag on the way down.
A wonderfully unexpected and entertaining end to a fantastic show. The organisers can take great credit in the fact that they managed to put together such a strong and eclectic bill that managed to keep the entertainment levels high all the way through the evening (which is nowhere near as easy as it sounds!) Now bring on the full festival...