Review: Wolfson Howler

Tristram Fane-Saunders 3 May 2013

The Wolfson Howler has finally overtaken the Footlights Smoker as Cambridge’s best comedy night. They have impeccably chosen headliners (Ben Target, David Trent and now Tim Key), a consistently decent crop of Cambridge talent, and one of the circuit’s best comperes in regular host Nish Kumar.

Tonight, however, Kumar was slow to warm up a shy but attentive crowd. His compering style relies on a conversational, or at least co-operative audience, but, for a while, every question he asked (“You’re an English student – what’s your favourite book?”) was met with a lengthy silence. Things picked up after he found a willing accomplice in a lugubrious Norwegian called Eric, and soon he had the audience eating out of his hand.

Despite drawing attention to his beginner’s nerves in an opening riff, newcomer Dan Leigh gave a confident outing, kicking off with the big themes: sex, death and Jewish comedy. A flight of fancy about “playing the Jew card” (accompanied by an actual playing-card) went down particularly well, and Leigh kept the audience bubbling over nicely throughout.

Though Sian Docksey’s set suffered the occasional bump, at its best it provided some of the evening’s funniest moments. Enthusiastic, unpredictable and delightfully weird, Docksey may not have always succeeded in taking the audience with her, but never lost them for long. No one can accuse her of relying on hackneyed topics; an extended skit on the Armenian Genocide could have used a little trimming, but definitely wins bonus points for originality. Meanwhile, her surreal take on non-vegetarian water was one of the Howler’s highlights, and left me gasping for breath. She is about to leave England for a job performing on a lesbian cruise-ship. I hope she’s not gone for long.

Ken Cheng performed a tight, punchline-heavy set without an ounce of dead weight, rattling quickly through a range of topics linked only by the theme of “things I hate.” Despite the apparently loose structure of his set, Cheng surprised the audience with a couple of impressive callbacks, ending his routine with the worst pun I have ever heard (and I love a bad pun). Slick, professional, ticks all the boxes.

Liam Williams, however, moves at a slower pace. Williams is one of the most impressive recent footlights alumni, whether with sketch troupe Sheeps (currently on hiatus), or as a solo act. He delivered an excellent series of one-liners with perfect timing, and a faintly unsettling, low-energy vocal style. Doing stand-up comedy about how hard it is to be a stand-up comedian can seem a bit naval-gazing, but he managed to offer a genuinely original take on it; his concerned comments about his comedian-roommates’ sanity earned him the biggest laugh of the night. He spent much of his set describing his desire to be “a more ambitious comedian”. It’s not entirely a joke; Williams is clearly trying to veer away from straightforward stand-up into something more unusual, as evident from his brilliantly unexpected use of sound effects, or his deadpan delivery of an entirely eventless anecdote (ending with “that’s it, that was the story, the punchline has happened.”). He gleaned a treasure-trove of material from a UKIP council elections flyer, before acting out a one-man historical documentary on ‘the Henriettans’. One to watch.

If you’ve ever seen Tim Key before, all you need to know is that he’s exactly the same; same bad suit, same abrupt poems, same passive-aggressive attitude toward whoever’s on the sound-desk. Key is one of the great comic performers of the last few years, and knows it. Sipping coyly from a pint-glass, Key told strange tales of romantic failure, interspersed with his trademark micro-poems (“Tanya googled herself. Still nothing”), and had the audience eating out of his hand. A lot of his material will be familiar to existing fans (a few of tonight’s best gags were culled from Slutcracker, his 2009 Edinburgh show), but anyone new to Key’s work will have come away converted.

Tristram Fane-Saunders