Review in The Times, 30th January 2007


A Tribute to Naked Ambition
Dominic Maxwell at the Hackney Empire, London E8

“We’ve got some great acts, we’ve also got some dross - that’s the way it goes.” For accuracy and concision, it’s hard to outgun compere Nick Wilty’s analysis of this second annual Malcolm Hardee benefit show, which ran for more than four hours at the Hackney Empire on Sunday.

As with all sequels, it couldn’t quite equal the impact of its progenitor. Both shows paid tribute to this self-styled comedian, club owner, grassroots legend, on-stage nudist and full-time character. This was a celebration of the sense of comic freedom that Hardee lived and breathed. Nobody got this across better than the first act, Phil Kay. But the bearded Scots comedian also managed to get most of the emotional content into his set.

He questioned why this show was happening - “Malcolm was nice, but that’s not enough to get anyone else a room when they die” - then both saluted Hardee’s freeness and undercut his own portentousness. While playing a guitar. With his trousers round his ankles. A joy.

The show peaked early, after the impressionist Phil Cool and the veteran laconic comic Norman Lovett followed Kay. Few of the lesser-known acts could raise their acts this high. Doktor CocaColaMcDonalds, a bit of a talking point at Edinburgh last year, was a bit of a drag here, as he laboriously sang over Cassiotone keyboards.

In the second act Hardee’s sister Clare sang Life is a Cabaret - “with gusto, if not in key”, as Hardee himself once summed it up - a couple of novelty acts tanked, before the young comedian Helen Keen impressed, but more with her ready wit with hecklers than with her OK material. So you were grateful for the capable Jo Brand to steady a rocky ship and for a Riverdance routine that was really just an excuse to get some hilarious eight-legged dancing dolls to sprong around the stage.

Milton Jones’s wild-haired gag parade pretty much stole the show in the third act, although Simon Munnery’s closing set was a reminder of what a sensational comic brain he has.

The great acts tipped the balance with the dross. But if this is to remain an annual event, it’s going to have to develop a character all of its own. At the end Martin Soan came on alone, naked but for a pair of balloons - the nude balloon act that was Hardee’s defining routine. “It’s not quite the same without Malcolm, really, is it?” he muttered. Next year’s show, if there is one, has to be a fresh start.