They democratically organised the talent list alphabetically. Sort of.

I’ve previously waxed cynical about all-star comedy gigs for charities: a couple of the smaller ones have been fun, such as the MIND Comedy night at Leicester Square Theatre (although an element of the buzz there was because Daniel Kitson was on the bill), or the No Sweat! gig at the Cross Kings in Kings Cross (aside from the inept compering and the conspiracy theorist speaker, Andrew O’Neill, Stewart Lee and Josie Long really brought it home), and the mid-size ones were amusing enough (OrangAID was a fairly unspectacular bill with a useless compere in Dave Johns who was out-heckled by a Scandinavian audient, and the evening was prolonged by an ill-timed speech after Bill Bailey‘s set by the charity’s upper echelons), the large-scale all-singing, all-dancing ones (e.g. Channel 4 Comedy Gala, Teen Cancer Trust Albert Hall gig) fall way short of the mark.

But like an optimistic idiot I still keep buying tickets for all of them.

Thankfully however last night’s comedy showcase “Laughter/Pain” for UK human rights charity Reprieve was a masterclass in how to do one of these events.

As soon as the gig went up Reprieve’s founder, Clive Stafford-Smith, took stage and spoke a brief intro outlining what it is that the organisation does, highlighting a few campaign issues, and then yielded the mic straightaway to compere Alistair Barrie.  Deftly assessing the mood of the crowd, Barrie just got on with the job of channelling the acts onto the stage rather than engaging in the self-indulgent hype-creation routine that some comperes feel they have to do.  This crowd was definitely up for it: no lathering required.

One of the things Smith spoke about was the case of Guantanamo Bay’s Contraband Underpants.  Which dovetailed neatly with the availibility of the special run of Agent Provocateur prison-orange “Fair Trial My Arse” grundies.

First cab off the rank was energetic Hibernian ginger-maned joymonger, Ed Byrne.  Proving roundly that the story’s in the telling, Byrne set off on routines including his piece on cat adoption – I reckon this is the 3rd time I’ve heard this set, and yet it’s easy to look past this, as you get caught up in the enthusiasm & glee he brings to bear on stage.

My recollection of the exact batting order gets a little sketchy – should’ve written this damn thing yesterday! – however it’d be fair to say that the people sitting adjacent to me probably got less impressed with my reaction as the evening wore on, as I bubbled with excitement more & more as each subsequent comic took stage.

As Al Barrie said in the intro, “it’s not a London charity gig unless this guy’s on the bill” –  Robin Ince delivered his standard passionate, disorganised maelstrom of frustration, rage & incomprehension at the world, in the way that only he can.  Again, having followed a full quota of Ince gigs over Winter & Autumn I’d heard most of his canned anecdotes before, although Robin’s one of the hardest working comics on the circuit and you can always be guaranteed of a new direction or facet of his ire, as well as addressing of any number of topics that have drifted into his transom that day/week/month.  Relevantly he pulled out his material on Binyam Mohamed, and the Daily Express response to his release – quite admirable though that a comic was clued up enough on issues to include a pertinent case run by the very charity which the evening was in support of.

The disarming and talented Isy Suttie showed her versatile range of guitar-backed whimsy & vitriol, and demonstrated ably that she’s no one-trick pony.  I think the first time I’d seen her outside of a Peep Show context was duetting with the excellent Gavin Osborn, and her performance at Laughter/Pain cemented her status as an exponent of quality humour.  Am definitely keen to book on to a solo show of hers!

Supreme architect of erudite nonsense Andy Zaltzman stormed the stage with a truncated set orbiting his usual preserves of politics and sport.  Again, I’d seen the same set (more or less) recently whilst down at The Hob in Forest Hill, and at Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush,  and still Zaltzman carried it with aplomb.  It was probably fortunate for him that as a political comic, torture has been in the news, and his set on waterboarding was thus relevant to the aim of the night.  Whilst excellent, it would’ve been a little harder to justify that set at a gig like the Channel 4 Comedy gala (for Great Ormond Street Hospital).  The crowd didn’t seem to get into his set as much as some of the others, however if pressed for an explanation I’d put it down to the bill being so uniformly excellent that you’d be hard pressed to maintain 100% engagement for the duration of the gig.  Definitely a very strong performance from Big Z though, and as always I was tickled by his departure remarks: “If you’ve enjoyed this, listen to my podcast: The Bugle.  If you haven’t, then probably best not to, as it’s just more of the same”.

Phill Jupitus took stage in a fairly rare standup set – he had some nice solid material around parenthood, and I very much enjoyed his “this isn’t a comedy routine, this is just me getting indignant about the behaviour of my daughter’s boyfriend” mode.  Mid-set Jupitus surrendered the stage to perky a-capella bombshells The La De Dahs for a quick and tight number, before returning for an odd but fun rendition of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

Shappi Khorsandi brought home a safe but very capable set centred around the sorts of issues she faces as a half-Iranian woman in the UK, as well as a newly ensingled single mum.  She’d been slightly thrown off balance due to Al Barrie tipping us off that it was her birthday, and upon her taking stage being treated to an enthusiastic if mismatched Happy Birthday in 3 keys & 3 tempos from the audience.  She’s definitely a charismatic performer who’s comfortable on stage, and easily won the crowd.

The Actor Kevin Eldon showed up with a tight set of some of his musical numbers: whilst not attempting to display virtuosity on the guitar, Eldon’s a superb observer and intellectual, and his songs were all witty & clever in a non-higher-brow-than-thou way.  Again – having seen all of them before (I swear, I do stuff OTHER than stalking comedians!)  – he mustered a goodly amount of giggling with songs like “My CDs Jump”, and silly French number “Je Cherche La Femme”.

Dry raconteur Stewart Lee was the penultimate act, and whilst I loved his analysis of city-living fortysomethings who move to the countryside (and this being the 4th time I’ve seen that routine), it was clear that Lee’s an acquired taste, or maybe he suffered from the same comedy plateau timing issue that Zaltzman did.  Indeed some people felt that the routine dragged (such as this understandably biased individual on the Tim Minchin fan forum), however you could tell from the vibe of the crowd that they were largely disciples of the headline act, and probably saw Stewart Lee’s wry repetition as the last hurdle between them and getting their fix of bare-footed piano-based brilliance.

Tim Minchin finished the night off in style, and though being the cynic that I am I couldn’t help noting that the Minchin Hype Machine had had its handle well & truly cranked by his legion of wide-eyed fans, there is no denying that the man really brings it when he performs, and is quite deserving of the enthusiasm & fervour with which people seem to adopt him as a personal figure of worship.  He plays the piano like an angel, and yet you get the distinct feeling he’s the kind of angel who you wouldn’t want to fall asleep listening to due to the strong chance of waking up to find him teabagging you with a cheeky grin.  Starting out with his musical “gotcha” entitled “Prejudice”, he then came up with what I thought was a bit of a surprise, in “The Pope Song” – I agree with the sentiment completely, but wasn’t sure if it’d stand up to live performance because of its speed & complexity of diction: however, of course, he nailed it… and brought the house down.  Well, with the exception of one vocal fan in response to whose irritation at Tim’s intro to a song on feminism, he advised “Suck my balls!”.  So jaunty favourite “Confessions” was next, before the environmental and indeed general awareness-raising movement anthem “Canvas Bags” finished off the set.  And the crowd cheered.

In summary – an absolutely storming comedy night, featuring a top class field of UK (and Australian) talent, and a hands-down win for Reprieve UK.

In fact about the only thing wrong with the evening was that I’d bought 2 non-adjacent tickets, and in the spirit of fairness I’d offered ex-housemate Mike first random pick (he’s visiting from Adelaide, so it seemed fair), and he got the seat in stalls row K.  And even then, I was in central row C of the dress circle, so no massive complaints!

A truly superb evening.

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