By Tom Cain
Bloody hell. Of all the reviewing jobs in all the world, I get stuck reviewing the newly established Stand Society’s comedy night. Amateur student comedy. I am not good with second hand embarrassment at the best of times, but this amounts to a cruel and unusual punishment. Who have I wronged to deserve this? On arrival, the place is deserted. There’s no hiding. I am going to have to endure two hours of amateur comedy directed solely at me. This is a bad dream. Drink. I need a drink. That’s better. Other people are here, anxious and afraid. No one expects this to go well.
A few more trickle in. That’s good. Maybe I’m about to become best friends with the rest of the audience, eternally bonded through shared adversity. Maybe not. Hold on. It’s really getting busy. The place is heaving. They’re turning people away. People are waving cash at the door trying to get in like this is the last chopper out of Saigon. I wanted a bigger crowd but not this. Some of these comics are first-timers and this is practically an exercise in crowd-control. If this goes wrong, it goes very wrong, very publicly wrong.
The lights dim. Here we go. Please don’t be shit. Please don’t be shit. The host, Ivo, is warm, funny, and puts everyone at ease. Everyone but me. I fear I have reached a state of anxiety so advanced that I will never truly be at ease ever again. The first act, James Murray, steps up. The tension is palpable. And then suddenly… laughter. He’s good. I’m smiling. He picks up on the tension, and like a seasoned pro reduces it down to nothing. He’s very good. The jokes are coming thick and fast. He likens himself to a gay Harry Potter. One man next to me guffaws with such dynamism he grabs my thigh. Steady on, I think. Soon, almost too soon, James wraps up his set, and the whole mood of the evening has changed – gone is the air of a Victorian crowd gathered grimly to watch a public execution, and in its place comes genuine excitement at what we’re about to see next.
More great acts follow. Gags about everything from crisp packets to perverts to Lee Mack are well-received. The crowd, already warm, are now being brought to a boil as laughter explodes at a heckler being brought onstage and made to participate in a wild short story. Then comes Ben Bradley. Moments before he goes on I am told he is in fact a one-liner specialist. All the optimism that has blossomed inside me withers, and I feel like I’m back to square one: taut, tense, full of second-hand anxiety. One-liners can be the toughest tricks to pull off even for professionals. Don’t do it, I think. It’s suicide. Ben begins. He starts a little slowly, but two gags land in quick succession and his confidence grows. His lines begin to earn more than the customary appreciative chuckle and start getting outright roars of laughter. By the end of his act I’m applauding. If anything I felt there were moments when he was wasted on a crowd possibly more accustomed to anecdotal comedy – but Ben was killing it, and I need never have worried.
The second half begins. I’m totally at ease now. Joe delivers a charming set about his university experience, riffing on race and sexuality. He almost has the manner of someone telling stories at a dinner party, so relaxed is his delivery. The laughs come just as easily, particularly for one well-worked line about a mishap ordering a toastie. And then to end the evening, Sasha LO delivers the longest and best set of the night. Her experience performing live comedy is evident as she navigates a sharp routine about growing up with an adopted sibling, school life, and the stereotypes she encounters as a middle class product of a private school. She is self-deprecating without ever being self-pitying, and confident without ever straying into arrogance. It’s a hugely impressive set, pulled off effortlessly. She even finds the time to work in a Nazi joke, likening the newly established Stand Society to Hitler’s SS. Truly there is something for everyone.
Unlike the SS however, it’s clear that the Stand Society is here to stay. They won me over. I started the night anxious I’d be subjected to a torturous two hours of second hand embarrassment, and I left having experienced a brilliant night of live comedy. If the Stand Society keep delivering nights like these, they will quickly become a staple fixture of the Durham theatre scene. Perhaps more pressingly though, they may first need to find a bigger pub.
Image credit: The Stand
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