Before Leicester dug up dead kings and was (temporarily) decent at football, it had to try and attract anyone it possibly could to the city.
So, 23-years-ago the Leicester Comedy Festival was born. Now it’s the biggest outside of Scotland with over 800 shows over the 19 days.
Cup of Beans ventured down to the Midlands (no it’s not the south) for a Friday and Saturday of hilarity.
A staple of the comedy festival is Comedy in the Dark which always proves popular – so popular in fact they’ve massively over booked and have to move it to a different cinema screen at the Phoenix Art Theatre.
Chortle Compare of the Year 2016 nominee Kiri Pritchard-Maclean takes the fact it therefore starts 30 minutes late in her stride and eases what could have been an annoyed audience.
Having been to a few Comedy in the Darks it’s always strange to see comedians panic when the lights go off and they mostly revert to their tried and trusted set rather than embrace the comic potential. Thankfully though nobody strips off for when the lights come on this time.
Anglesey comic Kiri seemed to go straight for her trusted material when the lights went out but it was still good value. Before that there was plenty of riffing with the audience about sexually harassing each other during the show and joking as the production team got to grips with the new theatre. ‘Is there any epileptics in?’ She says as the lights flicker on and off. ‘Not anymore.’
The first two acts, Ed Patrick and Jenny Collier also revert to their tried and trusted material, the former even still reading a sex scene from a book using a torch.
The majority of Ed’s act is about being a junior doctor from Oxford. ‘I tell people about my double life and they just don’t believe me and say that it must just be an act’ he says, ‘but you just have to ignore those patients’.
He’s quick to make fun of the fact that obviously he may not always be working weekends and there’s plenty of great anecdotes and Jeremy Hunt bashing.
The second act is Jenny Collier who provides a few laughs with Welsh words and tails of living around the country using her talents with accents which does resonate well in the blank ether.
Headliner Bec Hill is the one who really takes the darkness to heart. Coming across as a CBBC presenter on crack, the Australian livewire has brought special glow in the dark shoes and gets the audience to memorise joke categories before the lights go down. On demand from the punters she the belts the jokes in the pitch black. It’s surreal, madcap and very entertaining.
Like any fringe festival, it’s worth spending a day just winging it and seeing acts you might not see anyway, but do because it’s convenient. Saturday starts unintentionally late, 3pm in fact, in the tiny basement of The Cookie right in the city centre watching three very old, odd grumpy men.
Grumpy Boots is listed as a ‘world premiere solo show’, but is actually a trio of acts led at first by veteran Rob Coleman who quickly gets the 40 or 50 people in the venue laughing about everything from quinoa to fascism.
The laughter continues amid long, long periods of silence from the stage as Frank Fasovski, a socially awkward pensioner regales the audience with very little. It’s excruciating and ever so slightly scary, but still funny.
Finally London based Chris Norton-Walker rounds things off for the hour’s entertainment with a fine set. He looks and sounds a bit like Keith from the office and is equally as funny.
Like all the Grumpy Boots, they’re not actually that grumpy and there’s a warm reception for all and plenty of donations going in the bucket at the end of the free show.
We also stop in The Cookie for the next act on the day, the 6ft 6 Jon Pearson who affably delivers a set full of anecdotes about the likes of having a personal trainer, the joy of January birthdays and toilet blockage problems on Christmas Day all while trying not to bang his head on the lights.
In the evening, while our female companions head to watch Sue Perkin at De Montfort Hall, it’s off to one of the Just The Tonic Comedy Clubs providing raucous laughter to Hansom Hall, part of a library. Preston’s very own Phil Ellis is the excellent compare of the night. Highlights include his occasional breakdowns with regards a recent divorce (‘It’s not affected me at all) and getting a boastful student on stage to (fail to) do 50 press ups.
The first act is the improvised comedy group The Noise Next Door. Taking everything they sing or act about from shout-outs to the audience, they’re incredibly quick witted and fantastically funny. They’ve been on national TV before, but expect more in the future.
The laughs keep coming with Darius Davies, fresh from a solo gig just an hour earlier about wrestling, he sticks to safer ground for this set grappling with tails of living in Bethnal Green and the current political situation.
Darius is another you will probably see more of on TV soon alongside the headliner in Canadian Tom Stade who is already a regular on show like Live at The Apollo.
He provides the audience with a solid set that stays with him until the end despite the show finishing over an hour later than scheduled before the mad rush to not miss the last buses and trains.
The Festival is on until February 26th. http://comedy-festival.co.uk/