Chortle Review of Ha Ha Hammersmith II
‘A fundraiser for a theatre?’ Al Murray splutters with rage. ‘Just what we need: more plays.’
Well, technically everyone’s here to raise money for the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith’s work with underprivileged youngsters, but it doesn’t diminish the impact of the Pub Landlord’s gag, part of yet another barnstorming performance.
He was just one of the acts at the now-annual Ha Ha Hammersmith fundraiser organised by former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis, who not only assembled some of the best stand-ups from around West London, but also persuaded her chanteuse daughter Sophie to provide a distinctive musical finale.
Richard Herring was compere, with patter revolving around the fact that compering wasn’t what he was good at. Oddly, though, his gags – some of which are excellent – received mixed reactions, while his floundering banter got the laughs. Such is the power of honest self-deprecation.
Robin Ince was at it, too, mulling the fact that a 550-seater theatre was no place to be experimenting with new material. Yet most of it worked – none more so than a nifty one-liner about ridiculous alternatives to evolution – and he’s enough solid material to go out on a bang. More importantly, though, he resonates with a theatre audience – intelligent, well-read middle-class people secretly despairing of the feral ignorance of lower social groups are his constituency, and he played to them perfectly, reassuring them that the night ahead would be right up their street.
Next up was Alfie Brown. And no, I hadn’t heard of him either. He’s a very new act to be performing on such a big stage – not that the environment fazed this confident 20-year-old. He’s got a nice, unhurried style to him, even though his set is not yet fully formed, and the pay-offs don’t quite justify the build-ups. That’s never more true than in a segment making judicious use of the c-word, only to end in a very weak gag, which seems just like juvenile showing off. Observations from such unlikely sources as the cover notes on The Female Eunuch proved his strongest suit, but reading out drunk and emotional text messages from the girlfriend he dumped seem cruelly exploitative, without much comic justification. But as a newbie he’s got a certain comic glint that sets him apart from his peers, if not the stellar line-up on a gig where he’s punching well above his weight.
Scottish-Indian comic Ayesha Hazarika called in a typically solid but unspectacular routine. Her mixed background provides some smart one-liners; but she runs close to mining that seam dry, as the formula of comparing her Muslim background to Glaswegian life is applied time after time after time. Each line is tailed with a girlish giggle, which is two parts sweetly endearing to one part annoying, but even her huge dollops of charm are not enough to raise some truly Christmas-cracker level puns on Bin Laden or ricin beyond the dire. Unfortunately, she’s been stuck at this standard – halfway to being good but with a set crying out some ruthless pruning – for two or three years now. Will she ever make the next level?
Next up, Russell Howard’s boyish gusto proved as contagious as always. He’s open, cheeky and friendly – but it’s the fluency of his comedy that stands out: the fact that he appears to be making no effort as he recounts his anecdotes with unparalleled glee gives his set an authentic air of good humour. On the face of it his tales often don’t amount to much, but he is so genuinely enthused by them, and infuses them with a life-affirming meaning that uplifts the spirit. It’s a warm and winning attitude that always triumphs.
Closing the first half was Mitch Benn and his musical parodies. Say what you like about him, but there’s probably no one better at capturing the essence of a song or style and twisting it into a spoof. His big performance and bigger voice command any room, too, leaving no doubt of who’s the boss. But he’s cursed by the same problem that affects many a musical act, that the material content of what he’s singing about can be comedically weak – that James Blunt deserves to die, or the stereotypes of boy bands, for instance – but, by god, he belts them out. A few great lines do surface, either in his banter or as a sly rhyme in the lyrics, but the gags are never going to match the music. What he does may not be all that thrilling, but you can’t deny he does it brilliantly well.
With typical aloofness and moral superiority, Stewart Lee unveiled some new material, much of it about the ‘faint praise’ doled out when Channel 4 named him the 41st best ever stand-up. Mentioning it, he admits, affords him a rare chance to combine ‘boastfulness and humility’, but crucially it gives him the chance to pick apart the list show and its familiar contributors with typical forensic tenacity. Also in his deadly accurate sights was that more contentious Channel 4 offering, Celebrity Big Brother, and Russell Brand’s attempts to apologise for the racism on the show. Strong, distinctive, material like this augers well for the new solo show Lee is taking to Edinburgh.
Dead Ringer star Jan Ravens, the ultimate yummy mummy, is another act who resonated strongly with the sort of middle-class Radio 4-listening audience who would go to a theatre’s fundraiser. She’s no stand-up, and her attempts at banter had all the cloying, actressy insincerity of Oscar hosts trying to crack jokes from the Autocue, jarring with the natural style of rest of the line-up. But that’s not what she’s known for – and her razor-sharp parodies of everything from Jane Fonda’s anti-wrinkle cream adverts to Channel 4’s entire lifestyle programming were bang on the money. The impressions were, of course, faultless, but she also offered a few incisive, cutting one-liners to make her point.
Ravens also revealed something that might have explained newcomer Brown’s place on the bill. He is her son.
There’s little to say about Al Murray that hasn’t been said before. Again he bullied and bantered with the audience, with a smart comeback for every eventuality thrown up by his bullish questions of the front few rows. To close, he led everyone in an aggressively spirited rendition of Incey-Wincey Spider, which he imagines as an analogy for British grit.
After such a boisterous set piece, Sophie Ellis-Bextor provided a trio of more delicate songs, before Ha Ha Hammersmith drew to a close for a second successful year.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
June 11, 2007