Peter Dixon

Review: Leicester Comedy Festival Preview Gala 2017

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Dane Baptiste at the 2017 Leicester Comedy Festival.

The Leicester Comedy Festival has become firmly established on the UK comedy calendar.  The main festival runs in Leicester from 8th to the 26th February, with big weekend events also in Loughborough (9th to 13th) and Melton Mowbray (16th to 18th). 

Produced by the Big Difference Company charity, the festival is seen by many as one of the most important milestones in the UK comedy year.  Many acts present one off outings – either a re-run of the previous year’s Edinburgh show or a very early ‘work in progress’ performance of this year’s offering.

Comedy shows at the moment regularly include a political comment, views on Brexit or the presidential elections in the USA.  The Leicester Comedy Festival team has taken this theme on board and used it in their marketing. The 156 page brochure becomes the ‘Official Manifesto’.

Reinventing the festival as the conference run by the official comedy party of the UK, the “mission statement” is simply to make the UK laugh again. Using the slogan “We’ve Got Some Funny Ideas”, everyone is welcome to join the party and encouraged to ‘vote’ for comedy using the hash tag #onlyjoking in social media.

For the 16th year, the organisers put together a gala preview show (known this year as the ‘rally’) to promote the festival.  The evening was hosted by Jason Byrne.  The 150 minute show featured seven other performers, all involved in the 2017 festival, each on stage for ten to fifteen minute sets.

Jason Byrne proved to be an inspired choice as host. Dressed in his trade-mark white suit, he ran out a few routines about getting older. However, the big laughs came from his interaction with the crowd.  The concept of telling an audience that no other part of the country responded like them is not unique of course, but when a chance encounter with a latecomer turned into a running gag for the evening it proved to be a joy to watch and highlighted Byrne’s ability to deliver high-energy intelligent lunacy.  The audience member was late because the car park was half closed. Audience members suggested this was the fault of the major of the city.  A series of exchanges even ended with a photograph of the major projected onto the backstage screen.

The opening act was Josh Howie, who was taking a break from his debut UK tour, ‘Messed Up.’ Having to follow Jason Byrne’s frenetic introduction, with a storytelling style that is, perhaps more suited to an intimate setting, than the massive De Montfort Hall cannot have been easy. However, Howie’s refreshing, intelligent, self-depreciating tales of fatherhood won through. His comment, “My comedy is a little like Marmite….It’s great” resonated positively with the majority of the audience.

2014 BBC New Comedy Award winning Lost Voice Guy took the second spot and was very well received.  One sensed that he won a lot of fans during his appearance.  His line, “I’ve been disabled since before it was popular,” raised the biggest laugh of the night up to that point.

Sean Kelly was a good choice to close the first half.  For this audience, he was probably most familiar as the host of the popular Storage Hunters TV shows. Less known is that he ran his own comedy club in the US for eight years. It’s also the case that his previous appearance at the Leicester Comedy Festival was one of the fastest selling gigs in their history.  He comes across as an all American comic, but he told us he had been living in the UK for over two years and that he’d actually grown up in Germany.  He was looking somewhat trimmer than his publicity photos as he had recently dieted and lost four stones.  Kelly mentioned a couple of times that the ‘Storage Hunters’ TV show had been shown in 138 countries. The fact this appeared to pass un-noticed by an ‘unbothered’ Leicester crowd was picked up on by Jason Byrne when he opened the second half – “In Leicester you just stared. In the States people would have gone mental.”

The opening act in the second half was Lloyd Griffith, who delivered material from his club set rather than the show he will be presenting at the festival in February.  During his packed fifteen minutes, he demonstrated his choir boy singing, his encyclopaedic knowledge of cathedrals and, best of all, his uncanny ability to hilariously ‘impersonate’ the unrolling of any form of adhesive tape.  For many in the crowd it was clearly the funniest set of the evening.

Jamali Maddix has made a rapid move into the comedy mainstream since he won the 2014 Chortle Student Comedian of the Year.  He now comes with an impressive list of TV credits to his name.  With most audience members being older than Maddix, one might think this was not the natural demographic that you expect to attend his full show when he returns in February. However, his bouncy style and street wise stories will have won him several new fans.

Carly Smallman very much lived up to her billing as a singer of funny songs.  Her first number, with several twists and turns, was a hilarious song from her back catalogue about a girl in love with her brother.  For her second song she performed, for the first time in front of a live audience, a song that had been commissioned by the festival – it was to be the Comedy Party’s official song!  Lines included, “We will make the world smile again, when we put a comedian at number 10……’cos we’re the party who love to party!”  The number provided a very fitting connection to the political theme of the festival.  A video of the song including clips of the live performance is at

Dane Baptiste made his Leicester Festival debut in 2015.  He now has two critically acclaimed live shows, “Citizen Dane” and “Reasonable Doubt” and a BBC3 TV sitcom “Sunny D” to his name.  As he will be back at the festival next month with a new material show, he was a good choice to close the show. He delivered a well assured set in the characteristic laid back, but very thoughtful, style with a series of stories.

As we left the auditorium, we were treated to a reprise of the Carly Smallman Comedy Party office songs – a pre-recorded version played through the speakers.  As a reflection on the whole evening, the gala preview show (or ‘rally’) was most certainly of a very high standard throughout.  It provided a very fitting showcase for the 800 events taking place over the 19 days of the festival (er, ‘conference’), and it will have no doubt provided something of a boost to the ticket sales of those taking part.

The Leicester Comedy Festival takes place from the 8th to the 26th February, 2017.  Other highlights for 2017 include Jimmy Carr, Johnny Vegas, Ken Dodd, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, Sue Perkins, James Acaster with a trio of shows, Susan Calman and Richard Gadd and Scott Gibson ( Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2016 winners).

There are several seminars and discussions with speakers such as Sarah Millican, Barbara Nice and Romesh Ranganathan.

Competitions include ‘Silver Stand Up’, ‘Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year’ and the ‘UK Pun Championships’.

Picking up on the ‘Official Comedy Party’ theme the festival has political comedy shows from Andy Zaltzman, Andrew Lawrence, Josie Long, Matt Forde, Ahir Shah, Alfie Brown, Fin Taylor, Leo Kearse, Joe Wells, Jonathan Pie, and a documentary about the Edinburgh Panel Prize 2016 winning event, ‘Iraq Out and Loud’.

There is also a ‘Great Comedy Auction’ where you can bid for exclusive comedy items. On-line bidding is open now at the festival web site with a live auction by Sean Kelly on Friday the 10th February.

A detailed programme is available on the web site and ticket enquiries can be made by calling on 0116 456 6812.

Gala show performers can be seen at:

Dane Baptiste – Sat 11th February – The Cookie

Lost Voice Guy – Sun 19th February – The Exchange Bar

Lloyd Griffith – Sat 18th February – The Cookie

Josh Howie – Thurs 9th February – The Cookie

Sean Kelly – Thurs 9th & Fri 10th February – Peter Pizzeria

Jamali Maddix – Fri 17th February – The Cookie

Carly Smallman – Sun 12th February – Kayla; Sun 26th February – Peter Pizzeria.

Date of live review: Friday 6 January 2017 at The De Montfort Hall, Leicester.