There were half a dozen of them, sitting in front of me in the second row. Which made sense – they wanted attention. Students, at that awkward point where they wanted to stand out from the crowd, and do so by conforming to stereotypes of braying young men who can’t pace their drinking, and were mixing grape and grain for good measure.
Ross Noble was host, and an inspired choice – his butterfly mind ill-suited to the discipline of introducing the evening’s four acts, but that just made it funnier when he tried. The students were already pretty bladdered at this point, and attracted Ross’s attention, unable to grasp through the buzz of ‘being together with the lads’ that actually, ‘the lads’ weren’t going down too well.
Bec Hill was the first act, and the contrast with Ross was both telling and unfair – he’s been at the top of his game for a long time, she’s starting out. Her material was pretty good, but she was hemmed-in by a reliance on props that most couldn’t see well enough.
And then, the enigma that is Simon Lomas, who looks like he was rejected from The Inbetweeners. Taking the mic, he’s hesitant, seemingly unaware of the sizeable crowd. And he stumbles, and stutters, and is somehow hilarious. Lomas is a mutant mix of teenage Alan Bennett and deadpan American comic Steven Wright, his success dependent on the audience staying with him as a precisely placed word pivots a sentence from sense to drooling madness.
The students like Simon, and by this time there’s conflict between them. One of the chaps has taken a snifter of wine from another fellow’s bottle. This becomes the subject of cross-party talk as Ross wraps up the first half. Then it’s back with Damian Clark. The students like him because he’s talking kind of about their tribe, unaware that he’s not doing so with the affection they clearly feel for themselves.
Headliner Andrew O’Neill is brave, risks losing the audience by playing in a kind of Stewart Lee style about his awareness of what he and they are doing. It’s a highwire act that’s an investigation of comedy and performance as much as an example of it, and I’m glad the context of a Ross Noble hosted evening provided him with an opportunity for a bigger crowd than he’s used to. He was too much for the students, last seen exiting in a confused fashion to give a taxi driver a hard time.
Ross Noble Hosting Special from Just the Tonic was at The Belgrave Rooms on Saturday 20 May 2017.