Bilal Zafar was crowned "Top of the Bill" at the New Acts of the Year showcase in central London on Sunday.
The Wanstead comedian impressed the panel and audience alike with his tale of causing social media outrage among Islamophobes, who had somehow been given the idea he wasn't a comedian but instead operating as a small business owner running a 'Muslim only' bakery. (His Twitter handle, by the way, is @zafarcakes). What could have started as little more than an amusing anecdote became a reflection on prejudice and its rapid escalation, with Zafar turning up the heat on these haters with some delicious bakery themed baiting.
This final — known as NATYS — started back in 1987. The first winner was Linda Smith, the late comedian famous for putting Erith on the map, and the showcase also offered early recognition for Stewart Lee and Ardal O'Hanlon. Over 100 acts had entered through auditions at the Shoreditch Rich Mix, and 13 progressed to perform on the bill in the showcase at Leicester Square Theatre.
Arthur Smith welcomed each act for their five minutes, and they had to impress a panel made up of "blood sucking agents", "clapped out comedians" and "scumbag journalists" casting their beady eyes over proceedings. Zafar's prize is all the more impressive as this was a strong final, not only in the quality of the performances but also in the assortment of acts.
Interestingly, there was a small note of protest about this last fact sparked during Patrick Brusnahan's set. It was perhaps due to some understandable nerves (it certainly didn't seem meant as part of his set) when he complained of all the "goofy shit". It was an odd remark to make when in front of an enormous screen that said 'variety' and the fact this afternoon hosted so many subgenres of comedy — including the straightforwardly good standup of Brusnahan's — is surely something to be celebrated? Nonetheless, he did win the crowd back onside.
Furthermore, some of the other acts who placed highly were solid standups. It was another Londoner, Jimmy Bird, who placed second. He opened with the unpromising material of 'guys on a stag night', but used exaggeration to strong effect. He's also good at putting an image in your head too: the picture of a hapless lifeguard Bird on the shingled Brighton beach won't make him a candidate for a remake of Baywatch, but it lingered in the mind.
Emma Sidi's character delivered a feminist critique of Harry Potter entirely in Spanish
In joint third, Josh Pugh was also an easy fit in the standup category, and one of several comedians that seemed to have a deep well of potential. His delivery was low-key, he likes a poem, and he's pleasingly off-the-beaten track, finding an unexpected angle to his material. In other words, it all had surprise. Joining him in third was former Cambridge Footlight Emma Sidi, whose character delivered a feminist critique of Harry Potter entirely in Spanish. She had presence and power onstage in a spellbinding performance and demonstrated a whole range of comedic skills.
The final act to place — in fifth — were the first to perform on the day. Sketch double act Revan and Fennell were obviously crowd favourites and their energy made for a perfect start. In fact, their West Ham supporters bantering about Quantum Physics soon blew away any comedy slump the 2.30pm start time made the final vulnerable to, and it is probably the duo we should all thank for giving the room the atmosphere it needed for the rest of the final.
Others who didn't place on the day but definitely impressed the audience were two character comedians: Knightsbridge-loving Svetlana the Oligarch's Wife (Laura Bodell) and President Obonjo (Benjamin Bello). Both had complete command of the house within a few seconds and only weakened their sets by trying a little too much in five minutes. In both Svetlana and Obonjo there was the potential of that high-status, comedy bomb-proof kind of character that Alexis Dubus has created so successfully with Marcel Lucont.
These new acts all suggest that comedy — in all its variety — will remain in good health for some time to come.