Written for The British Comedy Guide
We’re welcomed by a juggler on a penny farthing, some ushers in formalwear who seem to be working off quirky scripts and all the posters in the Bloomsbury foyer have been adorned with comedy moustaches. Brand-appropriate silliness is everywhere; it might look cheap and cheerful, but it’s precisely aimed at a banter-loving crowd. The photo-booth and props had the whole foyer giggling. Even this cynic couldn’t resist the lure of a whole box of silly hats.
Much to the confusion of some in the audience, Dave’s Comedy Society isn’t being filmed or recorded. With the success of Dave’s One Night Stand, and the channel’s various vodcasts, podcasts and comedy blogs, it’s not surprising that live shows were next on the broadcaster’s list. And so we find “Dave” spelt out in ten-foot high 3D letters across the stage, alongside a slick set of old leather sofas, lamps and a stuffed partridge. Familiar as the set-up is to anyone who has seen a Dave ad-break, somehow here it’s strange. The scale and detail seems more suited to a TV or theatre set, and it’s not until headliner Alun Cochrane enters and hides the mic stand behind the D (leaving the compere briefly baffled) that they are even mentioned.
With stand-up gigs now regularly aired in prime-time on the BBC and Channel 4 it might seem strange that there is still real tensions between TV and live comedy styles. But remember that those TV shows are pre-recorded and carefully edited; it’s still not that long since Frankie Boyle blamed censorship for his quitting Mock the Week. If the Daily Mail’s regular campaigns against one-liners it finds offensive have died down, it’s more likely that TV has learnt caution rather than that we are enjoying a sudden golden age of free speech.
Jason Cook wins over the crowd in seconds, and treats the heckle from a porn translator as the gift it is. Yes, really – a man whose job it is to translate the scripted bits in porn. It’s a perfect example of something that couldn’t be allowed in a TV cut but is chest-achingly funny. It’s also well suited to Cook’s style, where with enough emotional honesty and a playful self-deprecating grin he can turn the most surreal, twisted, situation into something embarrassing yet familiar. He’s intensely likeable, but doesn’t use that as an excuse not to deliver on belly laughs, weaving great gags into energetic audience banter. It almost feels by the end that he’s stolen the show, but you couldn’t believe that of someone so nice.
Andrew Lawrence has probably never looked comfortable in his life, and one hopes he never will. He squirms around the mic stand spitting out venomous, frantic, eloquent rants. He gets the most laughs at his darkest, but tonight that’s a lot less dark that he can be. There are fantastic moments – after a long, exhausting build up seems to have reached its peak, there’s often not just one biting follow-up joke but two or three, each of which hit home. However in the slower sections the same bitterness can begin to drag. Lawrence is in his element in hour-long shows where his audience knows what to expect and he can unleash the full force of his extraordinary, horrific rants. However, it’s hard not to suspect that despite the fact that this show isn’t being filmed, his set has been toned down for tonight and that, in doing so, some of the power that has earned him a string of Perrier nominations is lost.
Frisky and Mannish are also star-encrusted darlings of Edinburgh who have yet to make serious moves into TV or radio. The change of pace could have been quite jarring, but they trust their audience. Immediately an extraordinary voice transports your soul to a place where the grammar mistakes in popular songs are fixed. If you haven’t yet seen Frisky and Mannish live there is simply no way to convince you how good the performance is. Her voice, his piano-playing, their dancing, the costumes, his voice & her hats… whatever you’re thinking of, it’s a better than that. But the jokes do sometimes take quite a long time to arrive. Their new collision theory set (essentially a best-of) has a nice mix of their clever genre-mashups and impressions. Their simpler gags, like the grammar one, might seem cheap if they weren’t so powerfully performed – but the contrast is half the joke. Tonight, the audience laughs where it should, there are a few great sections, and sometimes – like the dance-off finale, where they make great use of the vast stage – it verges on spectacular.
Alun Cochrane walks out apologising for messing up his entrance music and complaining that despite Dave’s backing he still hasn’t managed to fill the Bloomsbury (it’s a lot more fun than it sounds). Proceeding to hide the mic stand inside the enormous ‘D’ and then sitting down in the shiny leather chair, Cochrane is supremely confident on even this strange stage. There are points where it all feels a little too laid back but some great anecdotes – including one about using his young son as a babe magnet – bring the crowd back. Generally it’s a warm, friendly set. There’s lots of whimsical wit and a slow-burning charm which will serve him well in his inevitable move into panel-shows. When Cochrane does slip into some darker areas – his opening story is about someone too obese and depressed to open a window – his gentle pacing has the audience giggling before they realise the punch-line was the end of civilisation and hope.
Monday is a difficult night for comedy, and trying something new can sap energy as well. Even if the crowd was a little quiet, and things occasionally felt slightly slow, it might be down to first night nerves at a night that’s trying to do something different. If it’s because the looming presence of the TV channel was encouraging the comedians to self-censor, that’s more worrying. Hopefully tonight’s show proved to the media-moguls in the audience that the core of live comedy is risk and spontaneity – the respect between act and audience that comes because if things go wrong it can’t be hidden by an edit. The fact that if you ask someone what their job is, they might answer, in front of everyone, that they **** the **** up it’s *****.
Future dates for ‘Dave’s Comedy Society: Live’ will be announced soon.