A talented bunch: some of Monday nights comics Adédàmọ́lá Láoyè

For a special Wolfson Howler, it felt pretty normal. Returning after two years to the eponymous college, more diverse than ever under the direction of Adédàmọ́lá Láoyè and boasting a talented variety of both first time and returning comics, people milled about as if it had never left. Maybe that’s the secret to Cambridge’s premier comedy night – the audience is always going to be warm, generous, and forgiving, here to support friends and strangers alike. Watching the Howler felt both poignantly novel after over a year of restrictions, and intensely familiar.

A professional comedian always headlines the Howler – this time was Ben Pope – but the night is always about the less established talent. Monday went like this:

Compering the night was PhD student Hasan Al-Habib. An assured comedian, Al-Habib moved through original, often biting material in traditional structures e.g., one anecdote reminding him of another, or ‘here’s something someone said recently’ etc. Most of his work are brilliant observations – on race, Birmingham and washing your legs in the shower – without an overarching plot or conceit. The effect of this was a relaxed set; he paused or dwelt on lines to build laughter and was aware of his responsibility to warm the audience for the next act. Hilarious without stealing the evening and complimentary of the other comics, Al-Habib was a perfect compere.

"The audience is always going to be warm, generous, and forgiving"

 Following Al-Habib was Footlight Andy Bucks. Bucks' persona is self-consciously geeky – he knows, for instance, that he looks like Louis Theroux. His material and delivery were some of the strongest of the evening. Reflecting on living with his parents over lockdown, Bucks notes, ‘they ran out of things to talk about … in the car home’. However, Bucks raced through his material, seeming to be acutely aware of the time pressure. Good jokes need to be nurtured, given space to breathe and Bucks' were just too skittish. Equally, Bucks returned to the big laugh of his love of Gmail one too many times, a crutch that his promising set didn’t need.

 Fiona Clift set herself the biggest challenge of Monday's comics. With a set of ten impressions over across her short set, the results were predictably mixed. Nicola Sturgeon and Arlene Foster were passable, but the others were bafflingly obscure and their catchphrases forgettable. She nevertheless brought a boldness in her stage presence and a bravery to toss the too often rigid stand-up format.


Mountain View

Stage a comeback

 Isambard Dexter gave a charming but vaguely confused performance, fumbling through two-year-old material without seeming to know where he was going. A lot of it was funny but all of it was couched in clunky or incoherent conceits – did anyone catch why he started with the Simon Cowell impressions? A missed opportunity too was their bit about how newsreaders have to shift from covering bad news to an uplifting anecdote. This observation was ironically followed by some darker observations but this meta moment was either not noticed or made noticeable enough to garner the laughter it deserved.

 Former Cambridge student Lulu Popplewell framed her set around Heat magazine, an original and salient subject which yielded some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Aside from being simply hilarious, Popplewell is a thoughtful comedian. She dwelled on the contradictions and uncomfortable ironies of feminism and sexual harassment, for instance feeling left out when a man catcalls her friend, without losing either bleakness or humour. Sharp, witty, and cleverly constructed, Popplewell was the star of the night.

"Good jokes need to be nurtured, given space to breathe"

 Mamoun Elagab was the most exciting talent of the night. Boldly beginning with a laid-back pause, Elagab’s set was relentlessly funny, moving from his Sudanese background to his experience dating while having autism. His delivery was also arresting – able to make non-jokes funny, Elagab gave off the air of a comedian with decades more experience.

Rounding off the night was Dan Bishop. Bishop had an eye for the absurd – a job over the past year in chickpea factory is just inherently funny and his set seemed well polished. The inevitable guitar conclusion – brought on stage at the beginning – was funny at first but overstayed its welcome, with the same joke being recycled across four verses.

The warm audience covered any flat moments across Monday night. Yet the talent and originality of all the comics was clear to see. It's a good thing then that the Wolfson Howler is back.