Last weekend the Royal and Derngate played host to not one but two major comics trying out new material for their big tours next year. At short notice, in the Underground, Sarah Millican was (presumably) giving great value to a maximum of 160 people in what must have been a very special experience. In the main Derngate auditorium, and on sale for many months and pretty much sold out all that time, we had the pleasure of the company of Jason Manford, testing the water with new material for his 135-date Muddle Class tour which starts in Leeds in January and goes right on to Newcastle in December.
We’ve seen Mr Manford doing his stand-up once before, back in 2013 with his First World Problems tour. He won us over with his easy charm and relaxed attitude. Four years on and that’s still the same; there’s nothing remotely threatening about a Jason Manford gig, you’re never going to run the risk of being humiliated like if you go to see Julian Clary or Russell Brand, nor are you going to be faced with particularly challenging material. In fact, Mr Manford was very proud to say that he would hate it if anyone was ever offended by his act. I reckon that’s quite an unusual attitude; many comics would think that if someone was offended by their material, then they’re probably doing something right. But not Jason; too decent, too much of a family man, too rooted in (and I mean this kindly) a light entertainment approach to doing a gig.
The first half of the show was very much work-in-progress; he had his list of topics on a piece of paper and depending on our reaction each got either a tick or a cross. To be honest, I can’t imagine he had too many crosses. Amongst his subjects were those embarrassing times when you say something and someone takes it the wrong way – not a very pithy description there of what was actually some brilliant material. He also told us about what it was like to share an Edinburgh flat with John Bishop (Jase, do you want a smooooothie?), the dangers of hosting the PFA awards and how getting stuck on a waterslide is a good way of discovering you need to lose weight.
After the interval Mr M assured us that the rest of the material was more tried and tested. Well he needn’t have worried, everything up till then was funny anyway. As mentioned above, his new show is to be called Muddle Class, which is the closest to how he can now identify himself in the class system. When you were brought up poor and things were tough, but then you made good and you’re comfortably off, you can’t say you’re working class anymore, but you never felt like you were middle class either. There is some great material about coping with your children when they’re posher than you; in fact, he draws on his now considerable range of children (five kids under the age of eight) for a large chunk of his comic material. To be fair, doing that can alienate (slightly) the non-parents in the audience. However, he is so good-natured and inventive in his comedy approach that you forgive him for slightly overindulging on the family side; and I for one really enjoyed his accounts of living with the weird, scary daughter.
Other topics up for discussion, and which will presumably be honed to perfection when the tour properly kicks off in January, were a common theme running through Disney films (you won’t guess what it is) and how you could use a car to advertise Durex – a really clever and funny routine.
He ended, not with a Q&A as some comics tediously insist on, but with a song. Yes, gentle reader, I did say that he had a light entertainment touch. Mr M has just released an album of show tunes, and he treated us to a rendition of Javert’s song Stars from Les Miserables. Well, if it was good enough for Dickie Henderson, it’s good enough for him. I have to say it felt… unusual… to end a comedy gig this way, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I’m as passionate about show tunes as the next guy. And he did sneak in some nice humour from an unfortunate pairing of words in the lyrics, which won’t ever have occurred to you before, but now you won’t be able to hear that song without giggling like a schoolgirl.
A very enjoyable, friendly, warm-hearted and very funny night’s entertainment. I expect most seats in next year’s 135-date tour are already sold, but I’d definitely recommend booking Mr Manford if you get your skates on!