With the Hackney Empire closing down today – although hopefully only temporarily – this could be the last final of this well-regarded new talent showcase; or at least the last to be held in this grand music hall venue for a while.
The show was opened by the ever-glamourous, ever-popular cabaret duo Frisky and Mannish, surprisingly well-established for such a new act competition. Unlike a great deal of their musical comedy peers, this duo focus on delivery, and seem to avoid any recognisable punchlines whatsoever.
They are an incredibly talented pair but the comedy element was lacking here. A medley of songs with questions in the titles, built around the melody of Independent Woman, may be creative and performed beautifully but it takes up a large section of their short set but lacked the payoff needed to justify its inclusion. Their version of the Ting Tings’ That’s Not My Name showed a glimmer more potential, allowing Frisky and Mannish to connect with the crowd. It’s brilliant cabaret but lacking the comedy punch that they would have needed to achieve a higher placing than the third they achieved.
Luke Benson is a promising new stand-up whose confidence and delivery has improved vastly over his short career. The material tonight however, was generally uninspiring, relying on puns and one-liners above the more maturely written anecdotes that comprise his usual set. A likeable performer, he has the potential to go further if he can achieve better consistency. His Abu Hamza line came too early in the evening for the audience, leading to some shocked groans, although whether this was because of the sensitive subject matter or the convoluted set up is unclear. His material about being a genuine giant faired better, while his job interview routine displayed some more inventive writing, and boasted one of the best lines of the evening.
Next up was the first of two female foreign character acts on the bill, Tatiana Ostrakova, a Russian stand-up who claims to have played Jongleurs Minsk. Jo Selby plays Tatiana beautifully, resisting the temptation to over-perform The idea has been done before, a foreign visitor unaccustomed to the ‘British’ way of doing things but Selby keeps it fresh and most importantly funny. The only thing lacking was the lack of a decent ending. Either Selby was either thrown by the lack of response to her material involving the glove puppet Mr Tinkle, or she has written an awkward ending purposefully to push the audience. But it didn’t work tonight and left the room feeling a little confused and quiet. Without that hiccup, her genuinely exciting comedy creation would surely have been good enough to earn a place.
Luke Graves is a stand-up without any kind of hook, and while his material and delivery show promise, the routine feels under developed. Graves states he likes to cover topics not discussed by other acts, but after a weak section about his transvestite nephew he moves on to the Daily Mail, Jeremy Kyle and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sorry, Luke, but those topics are done to death and he just doesn’t have anything new to add. That said, his eye for joke structure and rhythm was one of the best of the night – he just needs the gags to go with it. He was also one of only a handful of acts on the bill tonight who had the professionalism not to go over their allocated time.
The audience took a while to warm to Giacinto Palmieri, perhaps trying to work out if his very thick Italian accent meant he was a character act. But he established his authenticity, winning them round with some nicely quirky material about idioms, offering a unique view of the oddities of the English language. His nerves were his downfall, making him appear slightly uncomfortable on this grand stage, but he had some beautiful lines, including refreshingly biting observations on Italian politics. Palmieri’s brilliant closing line regarding Silvio Berlusconi is proof that there is lots more to come from this engaging comic.
As the next act took to the stage one could be forgiven for thinking we had travelled back to 1994 when Ardal O’Hanlon scooped first place. Andrew Ryan not only resembles the comedian physically but his mannerisms and delivery are uncannily O’Hanlonesque. Ryan is an incredibly likable act and his unassuming charm and light touch won him the first applause break of the evening for a fairly simple gag about oversized baggage. He lost his way in the middle of his set when he seemed to stumble over a section about his webbed hands, though this small error didn’t faze the judges as they placed him fourth.
Val Lee seemed completely out of place on this bill. She is not a natural performer and her set scanned like a Radio 4 play more than a comedy routine. Her subject matter is the demise of her relationship with her partner Judy and whatever shock value the word ‘lesbian’ had on Lee’s generation was completely lost on the Empire’s liberal audience. Lee seemed to think that by describing the breakdown of a mature lady’s lesbian romance by quoting the lyrics to I Will Survive would be enough to get the laughs. It wasn’t, and the audience used her slot to get to the bar early. Lee has a lovely speaking voice and occasional nice turns of phrase but her eye for comedy has cataracts. Stand-up is not for her.
Sadly Nathaniel Metcalfe suffered from the change in atmosphere. There was a fair amount of noise and movement for the first few minutes of his set, which he dealt with well, eventually hitting his stride with a light-hearted deconstruction of an old Disney theme song. There is a touch of the Stewart Lee about his delivery as he employs long pauses, and a great deal of repetition to emphasise his points, but it’s Lee on ecstasy. A friendly, jovial enthusiastic fellow, he did well to take the show to an interval on a high note.
The shock of the night is that Abandoman, a three-man hip-hop group using a tagline (’the seventh most popular hip-hop group in Ireland) that’s very similar to Flight of the Conchords, managed to scoop first place. Not that they weren’t good, the skill involved in improvising three hip-hop numbers based on the lives of audience members is nothing short of genius, however they completely flouted the rules on timing: performing for 16 minutes rather than the regulation eight. It was selfish on such a big bill, made a mockery of having rules in the first place, and unfair on other acts who might have performed better had they taken a longer slot. And their set could so easily have been cut by choosing one audience member rather than two, and performing two raps rather than three.
Regulations aside, Rob Broderick, pictured, is an engaging frontman and an incredibly quick and skilful improviser. The audience were wowed by his flawless rapping and they received the first standing ovation of the night. It’s doubtful the ovation was for the comedy though, much more likely it was for the impressive spectacle.
Abandoman should have been a tough act to follow but Inel Tomlinson strutted onto stage with the confidence of a pro and gave the most assured, polished and natural performance of the night. He has a Def Comedy Jam style of delivery but his material has a strong British flavour. Tomlinson is walking proof there is no such thing as a hack topic as long as it is approached in a new way. His observations are inspired and original even when dealing with some of the most tired subjects in comedy. He seamlessly links between ATMs, Ryanair and night buses bringing something exciting to each topic. He engages with the crowd and at no point does his banter feel forced or padded. Definitely one to watch, and a worthy second-placed act.
More audience interaction with the next act up, young magician Alan Hudson. With only time for two tricks Hudson decided to ignore the time rules as well, even going so far as to hide the onstage timing light with his jacket as it would ‘just distract the audience’. Another personable performer, but with little to excite or inspire, Hudson doesn't have enough of an angle to stand out from the other magic acts on the circuit. It was fine, but you expect more than fine in a final.
It is almost predictably standard for a comic to open their set by pointing out which celebrities they look like. But when Dave Gibson arrives on stage looking like a Ron Burgundy tribute act, replete in Anchorman suit with perfectly coiffured hair and moustache, it’s not the spoof newsreader character he compares himself to, but Jason Lee. He seems to have missed a trick by exploring the My Name is Earl similarities, while the audience are conversing among themselves, searching their memories for Will Farrell’s name
Gibson has a range of one-liners that vary between groan-worthy and incredibly funny, his line about dating two anorexics proving particularly good. But the rest of his material is inconsistent, not enough to keep hold of the audience’s attention. There are a few gems in there, his helpful description of Greggs the Baker being a stand-out line, but they are lost to the weaker material about his Dad's Bluetooth and his stint as a TV warm-up. With a bit more work, and perhaps a look in the mirror Gibson could develop into a strong act.
Alyssa Kyria playing Ariadne The Greek Wag was almost certain to struggle being the second foreign character act on the bill, and just could not compete with the careful performance of Selby. Ariadne doesn’t seem to have anything to say, but she uses a lot of words to prove it. There is little depth to the dull character, the gags are base and obvious and she has a large prop which has a very weak payoff. Disappointing.
Richard Rycroft arrives looking like a geography supply teacher and is quick to point out he is an act and not someone's dad. Rycroft has an old-school feel to him, playing with puns and one-liners with varying degrees of success. There is no smut in his act, its a gentle romp through the bygone days of comedy. He's hit and miss with his material but clearly has a good eye for what will work with the audience, pre-empting his ‘groaners’ with a nod to how cringeworthy they are and delivering his stronger lines with confidence. A solid act who may not set the world alight but will do well smouldering gently in the smaller clubs.
The final act of tonight’s marathon was a complete puzzle. Sir Harold Hackney (Alternative Mayor of London) was obviously another character act, but a baffling one. It was an incredibly uncomfortable five minutes of silence while Sir Harold alternately mumbled and shouted into the mic, with no structure or rhythm, skipping from poetry to unfocussed ramblings to advice without changing his intonation or even pausing. Everything was read out from a scrap of paper which was fluttering nervously in his shaking hands. This may have been a stab at anti-comedy but it was largely incoherent so impossible to judge.
But you can't deny that the Hackney Empire produced a very mixed bill or styles, ages and abilities, showing the diversity that’s unique to the British circuit.