On paper The Comedy Reserve is a great idea: find four up-and-coming comics and sort them out with a fully paid up Edinburgh show under a prestigious banner, along with all the publicity and production quality of a top venue. It’s more difficult, however, to find talent that will resonate with audiences meaningfully whilst also functioning well in a showcase format. Much of the comedy on offer in the Reserve this year is good at neither, falling back on a pervasive artistic conservatism in nearly all of the material.
Our compare for the evening is Suzy Benett, whose likable persona of charismatic desperation just about carries her through an uninspiring set of clichéd circuit topics such as masturbation and over-eating. She has good punchlines, but her material lacks sophistication and cohesion, so that there is no satisfaction in the content if it fails to get a laugh. At either side of a bit about Madame Tussauds, for example, she contradictorily claims both to have quit and been fired from her old job.
Matt Rees’s material is similarly unambitious and his slow-bowl approach comes over as slightly charmless. This is a problem because he needs good will for those moments when his comedy is directed downwards, such as his complacently elitist gag about Burger King employees.
Chris Turner starts promisingly, with jokes wrapped around the structure of proverbs, but it’s a bit too close to Demitri Martini to feel fresh. His material about domestic violence almost loses his audience completely and – whether for its nastiness, misogyny or insulting artistic laziness – it deserves to. He immediately distances himself from it, removing any sense of risk or jeopardy in the routine by disowning his own content behind limp irony.
In the middle of Rees and Turner, however, is someone with tremendous originality, to which the conservatism of the other comics does a disservice. John Kearns is a jumpy and unpredictable raconteur, who launches his set by opening a multi-pack of Penguins and lifting the crease to find the joke inside. He is a shot of nervous energy, an elastic band about to snap. When the joke doesn’t connect in a Kearns set it doesn’t matter because it is original, inventive and linguistically detailed enough to feel worth the risk. He even has the formal ingenuity to work a segment on fruit stickers up to surreal and tremendous extremes.
The biggest laughs of the night actually come in Turner’s finale, an exceptional improvised rap using audience-suggested themes. However, this is parachuted in from the much stronger work he’s produced with the Oxford Imps and currently with Racing Minds. It is too little and too late to heat up a tepid evening of entertainment. Watch out for John Kearns though – I can’t see him waiting in reserve for long.