It was a perishingly cold Saturday night on Mare Street, and the Empire was sold out.
Staff were taking photos of each other, old friends were hugging and saying hello, before saying goodbye. It was the last hurrah for the current staff and management. The gang of mates that had run the place since it rose from the ashes of Mecca Bingo’s stewardship in the mid-1980s was getting the heave-ho. But first there would be a show.
A deep, disembodied voice admonished us to take our seats, and Arthur Smith ambled out. At first he looked awfully small against the yawning proscenium of the theatre, but his gruff good humour knitted us all in, and we were off.
Frisky and Mannish were a perfect choice to start the show. Outrageous, camp and actually very good musicians, they did a medley of pop songs from the Bangles to Destiny’s Child. “We teach you what you didn’t realise you already know about pop music.” Which basically means foregrounding the creepy subtext of the lyrics. It was brilliant. They’d go on to take third prize.
Luke Benson was next and I have to admit I was unfair to him in my audition roundup. Yes he talks about himself a lot (“I am quite tall”) but there’s a crucial quality necessary to succeeding in a big venue like the Empire, which if you have it makes what you actually say almost irrelevant. That thing is a recognisable attitude toward life, which as Louis Menand noted in 2001 about the appeal of J.D. Salinger, so few of us ever actually attain. Benson had it in spades. He was calm, self-deprecating, incredibly dry. It worked.
Tatiana once again sparkled as the educational comedy champ of Vladivostok (“I will now tell joke. A man and a woman are in a relationship. The man says to the woman, why do we not have intercourse as often as my friends have? The woman says that is because it is me with whom they are sleeping! Yes I am a whore! Thank you.”)
Luke Graves was very comfortable on stage, but maybe too comfortable – his jokes didn’t stretch us out, didn’t provoke. He probably would have killed at a smaller club.
Giacinto Palmieri was a diminutive, bearded Italian with an air of general aggrievement. His material was about language and it was very good. “In Italy we have an expression for when a difficult moment you’ve been anticipating arrives. It says ‘the brush reaches the tangle of hair’. It’s beautiful. You imagine a woman with her long black hair, brushing it slowly. In England you say ‘when the shit hits the fan.’ Not really the same, is it?”
Val Lee, perhaps my favourite from the auditions, was a bit nervous. Her precisely written material, sketching the most intimately strange details of a broken relationship, felt overwritten in the big main hall of the Empire. The material was more in her head instead of shared in the space between the stage and the crowd. It’s a shame. If she ever comes out with a collection of short stories I’ll read them greedily.
Andrew Ryan, a hugely likeable young Irish guy, did something interesting for his Empire gig: his big topper joke about inventing a handbag with a lightswitch in it used to prominently feature the word “pikey”. Like, a lot. He told the joke, but excised the word. Good move.
Nathaniel Metcalfe‘s epic story of the theme song to the Barefoot Executive, a Disney movie starring Kurt Russell and a monkey who can predict what TV pilots will become hits, ran into an early snag when the sound guy played the song too early. Metcalfe was unruffled. He brought us through to the end, tightening the vise until we were in tears.
Abandoman, an Irish “rapper” , a guitarist, and a dude who sits in the back and steps on a tambourine every once in awhile, would eventually take the top prize. Audience participation is often fraught with danger but Rob Broderick cajoled two members of the paying public onstage, sat them on either end of the stage, asked them a couple of detailed questions and proceeded to freestyle an entire 5-minute rap about their jobs, their dreams, and their eventual love affair. It’s a bit like seeing a magic trick, except that there is no trick. The guy actually just invents these lines on the spot. It should be impossible. I wouldn’t mind seeing him go head to head with Jigga or Snoop.
When Inel Tomlinson, the eventual runner-up, bounded on stage, the crowd went nuts. Who was this guy? I had missed his audition. Was he a ringer? The only black comedian of the night (which he noted – “kinda funny for Hackney, doncha think?”) he also had an attitude toward life. Disappointing and tawdry though it may be, life was basically hilarious. Not original, but it didn’t matter – Tomlinson had us in the palm of his hand. It helped that the jokes were local. “What’s the worst night bus?” he demanded and we answered: N29. “That’s right!” he said gleefully, before telling us how you can spot somebody on the night bus who doesn’t belong. “They pay.”
Alan Hudson was essentially a magician with funny patter. He got an audience member on stage to hold some coloured balloons, put a bag on both their heads, told the guy to pop one balloon at a time and he’d guess which colour had popped. The balloons popped, one by one, and one by one Hudson shouted out the colour. Amazing. Not a show winner by any stretch, but every variety show needs something like this.
Dave Gibson‘s polyester-suited buffoon was in fine form and he showed a real talent for flexibility and improvisation. “Wow” he said, peering up at the people in the balcony. “It’s like doing two shows at once!” He proceeded with his first joke, stopped, then repeated the joke up to the balcony. He was maybe less confident than in the audition, a little less callow, but given the outsized ego of his character that was a good thing. I hope we get to see more of him.
Something happened to Ariadne the Greek W.A.G.‘s act between the club and the Empire. Maybe it was nerves. She just wasn’t on, which was too bad because her character is a tacky treat. Bafflingly she even left off the clincher to her great joke about why men in London are like taxis (“If you’re lucky you can find one that will take five of you at once.”) Maybe her parents were there.
Richard Rycroft was every inch the middle-aged dirty uncle, and he played it to the hilt. Even going so far as to start telling very bad, unconnected puns. Oh well, we were near the end and it didn’t really matter.
Sir Harold Hackney, alternative Mayor of London was an 81-year-old fellow in a tweed suit, with jokes written on scraps of paper. He’s a buddy of one of the organizers. We humoured him. Variety.
While Abandoman eventually won, Inel Tomlinson is the one to watch. He’s got it, whatever the hell it is, and if he can keep coming up with material he should, by all rights, be a star.
As for the Hackney Empire itself? Its future likely lies with an Arts Council inspired push toward “quality”, which means this is likely the last New Act of the Year we’ll see there. Because quality is subjective. The crowd on Saturday night was roaring. “Quality” laughter sounds a little different, a little chirpier, a little more contained.