I went tonight to the 4th Birthday Party of Beat The Frog. This night is becoming my new obsession. It reminds me of the much missed Zumeba in that you have no way of predicting what it's going to be like, night to night. Tonight though was a particularly special night in that the comedians facing the frog* were all professional acts! I've never seen the venue so packed and the heat of the preceeding day made for a thick and sweaty atmosphere. There was an odd tension in the room before the night began, something which wasn't helped by my girlfriend getting a drink spilt on her and being "f#cking livid" as a consequence.
I think the atmosphere was partly due to the fact that it was slowly dawning on people what these professional acts had put themselves forward for; potential public humiliation and unprofessional criticism. It was odd to realise that these randomly selected audience members had the ability to do damage, albeit slight, to the careers of established acts such as: John Warburton, Sean Moran, Toby Hadoke, Mike Wilkinson, Jonathan Mayor, Owen Rankin and Jason Cook. On paper it had seemed like great fun but, for a moment, it suddenly seemed like a really cruel idea.
The first act John Warburton came on and stormed it. He reminded me a little of Toby Foster in his style and I really enjoyed his set. He had a very cavalier attitude towards the idea of the cards, "go on, stick a few up!". His taunts were un-rewarded and not a single card went up. Then the second act came on and, quite early on, up went a few cards. I was shocked, it hadn't occured to me that any of these guys would get the boot, but as Sean Moran ploughed through his not unamusing set it became clear that parts of the crowd wanted blood! By no means was his act not working but suddenly, up went the final card and off he was frogged!
I yelped in surprise. The compare looked a little awkward as he explained that four minutes ten seconds was a respectable score and that "this kind of thing can happen". Sean's set wasn't bad. He didn't storm it in the same way that John Warburton had but, on any other night, there's no way he would have been carded off. It put a strange edge onto the rest of the proceedings as I sat there worried that I might not get to see full sets from my two personal favourites; Toby Hadoke and Johnathon Mayor. As it happened there were no further cardings but it was a close call with some of them. I personally believe the card holders were just getting a little over excited.
Toby Hadoke was great fun to watch. He's a genuinely experimental comic who did a turn as his character "Diary Of A Posh Bloke". It had some good lines in it and would go well as a fully realised sketch. I'd like to see more of Toby's stuff. He's done a whole thing about Doctor Who which will be available via the BBC soon*. I'm not sure Toby is the funniest act I've seen in the past few years but I do think he's one of the ones I'd most want to see do a full show.
Mike Wilkinson is someone I've not seen before. He was doing a 'hilarious wacky comedy character' called Bobby Vertigo. My first thought when I saw him was something along the lines of "what the f#ck, card 'im off". As it turned out he was really good. The problem with a character like Bobby Vertigo is that I've seen that sort of thing done before, but badly. In this instance it was done really well. He added to the show's overall caberet feel.
Jonathan Mayor then walked on stage, dressed in full, splendid drag. He preened at the audience a little, pouted and said; "Aren't I gorgeous?". Then to the accompanyment of some music he pounced on the compare Dan Nightingale and snogged him before leaving the venue. Brilliant. It annoyed me a little to have know-all blokes in the audience shouting out "stick to the script" and so forth, implying that the whole thing was stage managed. It did feel a little like that was the case but why comment on it? Arrgh! Bloody tough guy know it all blokes. They're the root of some (almost all) evil.
Following that nonsense Owen Rankin did some high energy material about being a breakdancer. He was great. It was exciting to see him break character half way through his set and his beatboxing bit was ace. Anyone who uses a zip as a substitute for a record scratch is alright by me. I was new to his material and would have liked to have seen more.
This was one of the great things about the night; you were getting glimpses of acts who clearly all had much more to offer. It's more exciting than watching someone who has spent everything they had on you I think.
The final act was Jason Cook. He has an enormous stage presence and reminds me of the class clown from school who would often get into trouble for essentially very minor things. He plays up the role of practical joker onstage and had some great material about the AQA mobile phone service. I've seen him perform before and found him irritating, this was not the case tonight. He's matured a bit since then and has much more control over the audience. He owned the gig and rightly won the compettition. Although I'd have just as happily have seen it go to John Warburton.
The headliner was, in my opinion quite an eclectic act, called Seymour Mace. It was the perfect choice given the odd nature of the night overall. He rounded off one of the best comedy nights I've been to this year, by a long shot.
Happy 4th Birthday Beat The Frog! Go and watch it for yourself if you're anywhere near Manchester. Monday night, free entry.
PICTURES HERE, WITH A SLIGHTLY LESS INDEPTH REVIEW, ON OFFICIAL SITE.
*It's a gong night. You're onstage for five minutes but if the audience doesn't like you you're removed from stage early. Three audience memebers are given cards and in the event that all three get held up, you're off!
**Beware, on occasion, this page I'm linking to here has given me a big nasty scrolling pop up thing which made the page impossible to read.