by Derek Smith
There’s nothing quite like nailing your colours to the entertainment mast, and with a title like The Real Variety Show, nothing less than varied, quality acts were expected by a clearly discerning audience for JLA’s annual, prestigious Cadogan Hall bash. For any such big hitting show, you always need a big hitting compere, and withLenny Henry you get exactly that – all sweat, effort and bundles of enthusiasm. Only let down by somewhat predictable material, he nevertheless instilled that essential early feel-good factor. “It’s good it’s not an awards evening – there’s too many of them anyway,” he said, with several nods in the audience.
Welsh comic, Rhod Gilbert, was the first of a number of performers on stage whose act showed just how much comedy has changed since Henry’s real heydays. Gilbert expertly weaved some surreal scenarios with twists on the mundane – like hassles with luggage arriving terminally damaged on the carousel at the airport. His skit on a Navy recruitment TV advertisement turned into an epic, becoming ever funnier and wonderfully silly.
Silly doesn’t even begin to describe the skills of Bruce Airhead, a one-off if ever there was. A man with a hugely inflated ego – in the nicest possible sense – his act, to quote that old cliche, has to be seen to be believed. Smothered in more oil than a chicken drumstick from the local take-away, he metamorphoses into a human balloon dressed only in minimal attire, only to emerge as the king of rock and roll, complete with quiffed coiffure. An act you just cannot take your eyes off, he is a brilliant throw back to music hall eccentricity – and a very welcome spesh talent on the worldwide circuit.
Comic Paul Sinha, described as ‘one of the new breed of Asian comedians’ in the programme notes, adopts a more cerebral style than others, preferring a slow burn approach, offering not so much one-liner gags but lengthier social observations with decent tag lines covering subjects like racism, football violence and gay issues. His relatively short set here didn’t lend itself to his style of slow-build comedy and his talents could only really be judged on a full routine. A practising GP, he should, of course, know if laughter really is the best medicine.
True to its title, the evening’s next act offered a nice switch to something altogether different. Celloman, the brainchild of Ivan Hussey, who has worked with the likes of Take That and the Rolling Stones, is a certainly interesting blend of classical, jazz and world music, one that worked extremely well here given the fine acoustics of the Cadogan Hall. Hussey’s talent is to immediately make you forget all the preconceptions you may have about the cello being a somewhat staid instrument and his opening solo here blew those away in just a few minutes. By the time he’d been joined on stage by two other musicians for the second part of his set, there was nothing left to prove – in his hands, the cello just could be the new violin.
It’s always hard to tell whether a comedian/impressionist of the calibre of Jon Culshaw treats such ‘showcase’ gigs as just a day at the office or they really do feel the need to prepare some new material. With a catalogue of voices claimed to number around 360 people though, he’s never going to be lost for words – or jokes – at such industry events. Even when, on asking the audience to suggest people for him to imitate, the name of Stephen Hawkins was shouted out. Only on a very few occasions was the material to go with the lampooning not that sharp, but with Culshaw hitting the bullseye time and time again with his impressions, that was never likely to matter to an audience that loved every minute he was on stage. Russell Crowe as Les Dawson? Just one of many all too brief highlights.
Genuine spesh act number two Raymond Crowe describes himself as an ‘unusualist’ blending visual comedy, ventriloquism and shadow puppetry. The visual comedy, which he started with, I wasn’t that keen on – a case of flamboyant style over much substance – but his shadow puppetry launched his act onto a whole new level. Brilliantly effective, it soon had the audience ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ along to his various creations formed on a big projection screen. A unique and impressive talent then – beyond a shadow of a doubt, as it were.
Apparently described by The Sun as “the funniest new comic in the English speaking world,” I certainly wouldn’t go that far, but Michael McIntyre definitely has the ability to tap into all manner of mundane things that affect mostly metropolitan folk. The trials and tribulations of tube travel and the ludicrous post code envy of fellow Londoners were right on the comic button and you could only warm to McIntyre as he became increasingly got worked up about various subjects. More than anything, he has that element that’s so vital for comics – that unmistakable air of originality.
As, to be fair, does male comedy trio, Lost Locos, as loony a musical, knock-about threesome as you’re likely to see on the circuit. Stars of the European cabaret scene, according to JLA, there’s no doubt that some of their act gets lost in the translation to the UK. Like the Three Stooges in sombreros, what you get with this act is fun slapstick, some flamenco music thrown in and decent visual humour. Quite whether it would hold the attention for a full set, I’m not sure, but it would probably be fun finding out.
Those corporate bookers on the night seeking sharp, uncompromising comedy needed look no further thanFrankie Boyle, the regular panellist on the excellent Mock the Week. Always daring to go into comic territory that many others would shy away from, there’s always a wicked “have I gone too far?” smile on his face – then he goes a bit further. Inevitably, some won’t like his material, and that’s a risk he’s clearly willing to take, but the best comedians never got far without taking risks.
Earlier in the evening, even when he had slipped in a quick Tommy Cooper routine, Lenny Henry’s style of comedy hadn’t quite cut it with what was a savvy, quite young professional audience. But, and I’m sure unknown to many present before the night, Henry has another string to his bow – as lead singer in the band Poor White Trash and the Little Big Horns. Suddenly, here was a whole new Lenny Henry stomping around the stage, working up a sweat Lee Evans would have proud of, and evidently having a ball of a time while breezing through some good old standards. Free of the pressure of having to make people laugh, he looked a new man – and one with a pretty decent voice.
Come the end, The Real Variety Show – true to its word – had offered quality, imaginative variety. The only criticism was that apart from some members of the final band, not one female comic or act was in evidence. I’m sure JLA must have a least a few on their books worthy of appearing at such an important event – it would have just given the evening an extra dimension.