Lads on tour: Next Level Sketch perform at Up The Antic, Bristol and the Leicester Comedy Festival

Upstairs at The Globe for the Leicester Comedy Festival.

A few weeks ago, my sketch comedy collective emerged from their Omicron slumber to do their first ever non-London gigs.

This was a Big Step. Audiences in the big smoke are known to be honking idiots who will guffaw at anything, even a crude drawing of a sausage taped to a wall. But how would we fare with the aesthetes of the provinces?

Bristol

Our first show was to be at Up The Antic in the beautiful environs of the Bristol Improv Theatre. This gig was secured for us by the fantastic Flex, who has many a finger in the city’s assorted comedy pies.

We were to be on a shared bill alongside a stand-up comedian and the night’s own Improv team. Would we be able to hold our own? Or would our unsophisticated London jokes go down like buckets of lukewarm angel delight?

The venue begins to fill.

I did not lack confidence. And with good reason.

We had a superb cast – this guy right here, as well as the magnificent Flex Toomey, Vic Dry and Dan Smith.

We had some brilliant sketches. We went for the Greatest Hits approach, as – get this – we at Next Level Sketch have recently discovered that comedy acts often REPEAT the same jokes and material over and over again, rather than attempting to come up with 45 minutes of entirely new material and going mad in the process.

Who knew?

With a great cast, sketches that played to said cast’s undoubted strengths, and the four of us all managing to either live in or travel to Bristol in time for the show, spirits were high for the rehearsal, which took place, helpfully, at the venue itself.

And what a venue. It the largest space I had ever performed to. We had an entire CURTAINED OFF AREA for our props, rather than a small table. Can you imagine such luxury?

Rehearsal complete, we went to a pub across the road to eat chips, where Nadine joined us for moral and logistical support. Nerves, at this point, started to jangle within certain cast members, though I still felt mysteriously calm. “It’s because I’m dead inside,” I explained.

Pre-show nerves.

The show was a sellout. We waited in the bar until just before the start, and were then ushered to seats to the side of the stage. The compere worked his magic, before welcoming on the stand-up act, who careered and meandered the way to the end of her sexually explicit set.

And then, suddenly, it was an interval, and time for US. We all hid behind our curtained-off prop palace. Nervousness was now certainly kicking in, although again, not for me. I was extremely calm. As I keep explaining to people, I’m perfectly comfortable performing. It’s when I’m not on stage that all the problems start.

The compere returns. We are introduced. Dan and Flex head out to begin the first sketch, which hinges, very much, on my arrival dressed in character. They are being funny, and loud, their performances amplified by the energy of the expectant and receptive crowd.

And then I make my entrance, and the place explodes.

I have never experienced anything like it. Without giving away what it was about my outfit that made everyone lose their collective shit, it was a combination of my character being a surprise but also exactly what they wanted, and everyone in the audience realising that they were getting exactly what they wanted, all in the same moment of joy and relief.

Dan Smith and myself on stage at the Bristol Improv Theatre. Photo: Nadine Bailey

And from this moment on, everything went perfectly. I already knew these guys were good, but they absolutely nailed every joke, every line, every facial expression.

Vic Dry as Wonderwoman at the Bristol Improv Theatre. photo: Nadine Bailey.

Probably my favourite moment was for a sketch written by Flex, a two and a half minute character study worthy of Alan Bennett.I stuck it in towards the middle of the set because, well, I thought we would have earned the audience’s trust to do something a bit more subtle by then. And my god, had we. They loved it.

Flex Toomey and the author on stage at the Bristol Improv Theatre. Photo: Nadine Bailey.

Suddenly it was all finished, and I was introducing our troupe to the applauding humans. And then it was time for the second interval, and talking to my cousin, and Nadine, grinning, with a pre-bought pint in her hand.

After the show. Some hours after the show.

Leicester

Yarrrr. The cast for Leicester.

A few days after this triumph, it was time for the east Midlands. Now, as a son of Nottingham, I have longstanding and only partially ironic contempt for Leicester. At least it’s better than Derby, I would think to myself, despite never having been in twenty years.

It’s seen better days. Austerity has not been kind.

Still, this was us making out comedy festival debut. Two nights booked in a room above the oldest pub in town, arranged many months ago.

With London’s Vault Festival cancelled only a week or so previously, we knew that this one was going to be tricky, audience wise. But we were going to do it anyway. And I’m so glad we did, because it was a wonderful couple of days.

Our poster on display downstairs at The Globe. Poster design: Nadine Bailey.

Nadine was nominally leading this leg of our tour, which is entirely unfair: Up The Antic were a regular night, with their own audience, and we had links to the place. All this considered, I can take little credit for it being a sold out affair, even though I’m happy to say it was all down to me if it means they book us again.

Leicester was trickier. And a few days before we were due to go, we didn’t even have a tech person.

Step forward Shruti, irrepressible associate of Nadine’s from her latest stand-up course She agreed, last minute, to do tech for us, and was generally a ball of optimism and can-do attitude who lifted the whole touring party.

WooooooOOOOOOOooooooo. With Shruti after our second triumphant show.

We had a line-up change from Bristol. Roderick Millar came in for Vic, and Nadine also joined the cast. We had 45 minutes to fill rather than half an hour, but we kept a LOT of the sketches from Bristol, because, as mentioned earlier, it turns out that doing the same sketches over and over again is a good thing and other people do it too apparently.

Roderick and Dan in a Leicester cafe.

Ticket sales were not strong, but in such a small space above a pub midweek, it mattered less than we all expected. The performances were, somehow, even better than at Bristol, putting paid to my “feeding off the energy of a busy room” theory.

With such confidence in and knowledge of the material – we now knew that people outside London found us funny – there was even a bit of improv-ing as we went, and even better milking of the audience’s responses and those glorious little moments when they laugh at the bits you’re not expecting them to.

Over two days we did lots of extremely awkward flyering, ate some terrible food, met some lovely audience members, stole some rocks from Richard III’s grave, visited a gay bar (aka the only place in Leicester open late on a Wednesday night), and went bowling in a former railway station.

Sorry Dick.

Much thanks to the cast, my fellow producers, and the good people of Leicester for having us. One thing is certain: we will do more festivals this year.

Watch this space.

J x

p.s. here’s our next London show

Published by jamesofwalsh

My past blogs haunt the internet like ghost ships on a digital sea.

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