In the early 1990s, a group of students at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) staged an end-of-year comedy project. Three of them – Claire Walker, Abi Palmer and Geoff Rowe – developed the idea into what in 1994 became the first Leicester Comedy Festival; Walker and Palmer have gone on to other great things in the arts and Rowe remained as the festival's director. Under his leadership it has gone from strength to strength – second only to the Edinburgh Fringe in its stature in the industry. So drum-roll for the 25th incarnation of the Leicester Comedy Festival, with Ed Byrne MC for the night for its preview show.
Byrne is a safe pair of hands to host an event like this – he sprinkled a little stardust over the evening, introducing some acts that the audience may be unfamiliar with while keeping things moving along at pace. Between acts he delivered some segments from his latest touring show, Spoiler Alert, talking about the differences between his upbringing and those of his children, and wondering if his generation of parents may be giving a little too much to their offspring: “Social services send a drone to check you have a full-size trampoline in the back garden.”
A couple of performers new to me are names worth noting for the festival proper, which starts next month. Chris Norton Walker has a nice routine of one-liners – “It takes a lot of balls to do comedy. No, that's juggling” – and achieved a quick rapport with the audience, while Sarah Keyworth (pictured below by Steve Ullathorne), who has featured in the business end of a few newcomer awards, had some wonderfully drole material about her sexuality. “I like having the same bits as my partner. It's like having the same phone.”
There were two standout acts of the evening. Alasdair Beckett-King mined great comedy from his striking long red locks and full beard without treading too heavily on ginger sensibilities – “Redheads are becoming extinct because of climate change,” he said. “I thought it was because no one was sleeping with us.” Beckett-King won this festival's Comedian of the Year title in 2017, and deservedly so.
Flo and Joan – sisters Nicola and Rosie Dempsey – are a musical duo whose verbal dexterity in their songs is Gilbert & Sullivan-esque, while their between-songs patter is bone dry: “What do blind people eat when they're told to eat more greens?” They performed two songs and the second, “The Lady in the Woods”, was in the style of an old English folk song, and it told an increasingly complicated and fantastical story to great effect.
The duo are best known for their YouTube hit “The 2016 Song”, which detailed what was an annus horribilis for so many of us, and I predict they are names to remember.
Leicester Comedy Festival 7-25 February
Ed Byrne is touring until 2 June