The beginning was the best bit, though several subsequent bits were also excellent, and around the end it got particularly cheery. Doing the announcement off-stage, Ross Noble became entranced by the possibilities of the black sheet which provides the stage wings at Cranleigh Arts Centre. For a solid twenty minutes all we could see was a piece of fabric flapping in the near-darkness whilst a disembodied Geordie voice echoed around the room. It showcased all of Noble’s best points: the delight in the ludicrous, the ideas tripping over each other to get out and the revelling in how foolish he may look to an audience. And of course The Voice. This is the man of whom Ruby Wax once demanded “I’m sorry, is that talking English over there?” (“Have you never heard a Geordie accent before?” “Not from something that looks like it hasn’t brushed its hair in a year or two, no.”) but it certainly is English and he delivers it with rhythmic relish. All three comedians on the bill use their voices to terrific effect, from Noble’s tumbling Northern hoots, through Henry Packer’s clipped and slightly tetchy Home Counties vowels, to Hannah Gadsby’s Tasmanian creaks and swerves.
That’s a good thing, because their show was all about style. There weren’t a huge number of new ideas on offer: Packer joked about how inconvenient autocorrect is when you’re texting, Gadsby remarked on how chauvinistic men seem to find the idea of lesbians curiously interesting, and Noble went off about how disappointed the inventors of the past would have been by all the pornography on the Internet. I could tell you the times and places when I first heard comedians doing routines about those subjects, but it would rather miss the point. You don’t go to this lot for surprising thoughts or intellectual wrangles – that’s Richard Herring or Eddie Izzard’s territory. What you do ask – and what they supplied – is a performance. Packer strides across the floor explaining what he finds “irksome”, Gadsby acts out awkward conversations with her family, and Noble’s absolute best moments come when he is visibly wrestling with a new thought in front of the audience.
Somehow, and rather unfairly, this means that the more obviously scripted sequences in the evening come across a little flat at times. After the vertiginous moments of drama, where man battles curtain in a moving enactment of the human struggle, anecdotes about old films and school exams don’t quite have the same impact. Added to which, Noble does tend to expand verbally in person to fill the available time. Anyone who went expecting hours of the surreal brilliance which can be seen in five minute bursts on QI was disappointed. I’m not the first critic to feel that Noble is a bit self-indulgent at times, and could do with some rigorous self-editing, but maybe you only get the unexpected shifts into sheer hilarity if you keep it all on a long rein. But it’s worth it for those bits, and then some.