Most northern comedians you see on TV have all cut their teeth at this famous old club in Manchester’s Northern Quarter at some point. Johnny Vegas and Peter Kay were both regular comperes for the weekend shows back in the day, with the venue featuring in both of their autobiographies. Many more have been regular performers during the early stages of their careers, from Jason Manford and Lee Mack to Ross Noble and Dave Gorman.
I think John Bishop’s story is the one I like the most, though. After separating from his wife, he found himself in Manchester one night looking for something to do. Stumbling upon the Frog & Bucket, and their weekly amateur open mic night, he decided to give stand-up comedy a go. The rest, as they say, is history. Bishop can easily sell out the biggest arenas in the country in a matter of minutes these days, but the first chapter in his incredible story is simply trying to last five minutes in front of a bunch of strangers.
That’s the whole concept of the Frog & Bucket’s famous amateur night – Beat The Frog. Absolutely anybody can turn up and have a go. You’ve got five minutes to impress, and hopefully remain on stage for those 300 terrifying seconds. But three random members of the audience are given giant cards with pictures of frogs on. If one goes up, you’re okay. If two go up, you’ll be sweating. But if all three go up within the five minutes, your dreams are shattered, and you get croaked off the stage. It’s brutal, but audiences and performers alike know the score, and it’s bloody good fun.
I’m here on a Monday night, in the middle of a global pandemic, which has got worse recently with even more restrictions in place. You need a good compere on a night like this to get the crowd going. Fortunately, we have Brennan Reece, a northern lad himself who also started out at this venue, before making a name for himself on the comedy circuit. He’s started to break into TV as well with appearances on Live At The Apollo and Celebrity Coach Trip amongst others. I haven’t seen Brennan in the role of compere before, although I did see his brilliant stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018. He’s just as good at hosting, and gets everyone up for a top night out with some fun crowd work and piss-taking, including some funny stuff with an attractive couple on the front row – “two fit vampires from Preston”.
The show starts with two eight-minute sets from Alexandra Haddow and Michael Mannion (the prize for winning Beat The Frog is the chance to come back and perform for eight minutes uninterrupted) and you can clearly tell both of these are more established performers who have done this before. Alexandra and Michael both deliver quality sets, with plenty of laughs, to get the crowd going for Beat The Frog.
There’s 10 brave souls in total, daring to face the Manchester crowd seemingly made up of students and couples on date night, and with my pen and notepad at the ready, here’s a quick rundown of how they all fare…..
1 – Finch Murphy (2 minutes 45 seconds)
An interesting start to the show as a larger-than-life character takes to the stage, covered with piercings, make-up and an outfit straight from the alternative comedy scene of the 80s. He could quite easily be Rik Mayall’s younger brother. Announces to the room that he’s “queer”, was sectioned a while back, and tells the three card holders that he’ll kill himself if they croak him off. That won’t necessarily get you through the five minutes, however, and he’s sent packing after a couple of minutes.
2 – Dan Tiernan (5 minutes)
Imagine Lee Evans on acid. That’s the best way I can describe Dan, especially at the start of his routine as he struggles to get his microphone to work. It’s a madcap opening sixty seconds as he battles away with the microphone, but comedy gold at the same time with the audience lapping it up, which develops into raucous laughter as he explodes with a “fuck it”, before chucking the mic to the floor and doing his whole routine at the top of his voice. The crowd are already completely behind him, but this lad has got some fantastic one-liners and excellent storytelling skills as well, and he smashes his five minutes right out of the park.
3 – Alex Williams (4 minutes 50 seconds)
I can’t work out what I’ve written at all (to be fair I’m sat upstairs in the club where it’s pretty dark) but Alex focuses on her medical condition involving her spine, and turns it into a funny routine, including a joke about her body being like a pressed coat hanger, with lots of angles that shouldn’t be on a human body. Gets big laughs from the crowd, and as an audience we feel for her when she’s croaked off, especially with only ten seconds remaining.
4 – Jake Hartley-Moore (3 minutes 30 seconds)
I think the microphone has got Coronavirus because it’s knackered once again. Unfortunately for Jake, Dan’s already squeezed the comedy juice out of the broken microphone sponge, and although he makes light of the situation, it doesn’t have quite the same reaction. Or his material on cross-dressing, which sees a few tumbleweeds blowing across the stage. The microphone starts working for him, and some of his jokes do land, but it’s an early exit unfortunately.
5 – Chris Wells (5 minutes)
Pleasant routine, the highlight of which is a very funny parody of ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ which references the Queen’s sex pest son and some of his noncey ways, including lots of use of the words “up” and “down” which I’m sure your mucky minds can work out.
6 – Mark Taylor (5 minutes)
Mark starts the second half of the show, which isn’t easy straight after the interval, but he quickly gets the crowd onside with a “wanking into a sock” line, and delivers a solid five minutes.
7 – Emily Cartwright (5 minutes)
I realise I haven’t made any notes on Emily as I’m still laughing at Brennan Reece taking the piss out of a woman’s laugh as he’s compering in between acts. With beautiful comic timing, the audience goes quiet, to highlight this poor woman’s laugh, and right on cue she sounds like a pig getting pleasured. That’s honestly the best way I can describe it. Emily gets big laughs as well, from lockdown life and dating, and easily gets through the five minutes.
8 – Ian Lappin (4 minutes 15 seconds)
I have pretty high hopes for Ian, as he starts with a cracking joke about comparing his penis to a semicolon. There’s plenty more laughs after that, but unfortunately it goes a little bit flat in the final minute, which sees him croaked off the stage with an unforgiving Beat The Frog audience, baying for blood!
9 – Anthony Grogan (5 minutes)
A proper old-fashioned northern storyteller. The crowd are with him instantly, as he goes through a routine about being on holiday with his wife. It’s actually a shame his five minutes are up so quickly, as he leaves us all hanging at the end of a story on anal beads. Whose bottom they went up, his or his wife’s, we’ll never know.
10 – Rob Joynes (5 minutes)
Beat The Frog contestants get to the venue at around 7.00pm, so as the last act of the night, Rob has a bloody long wait before he takes to the stage at around 9.30pm. The audience can be a bit restless, or pissed, or both by this point, so it’s another tricky spot on the bill, but Rob gets through his five minutes nicely.
And that’s your lot. 10 have given it a go. 4 have croaked. But 6 have managed to get through their five-minute sets. And as we’re getting very close to 10.00pm, which is when we all have to be out of the building or else we’ll all, you know, die and that, Brennan quickly gets the 6 back towards the stage so we can choose our two winners, who will go through to the finals in October. One is a clear winner. The claps, cheers and whoops for Dan Tiernan nearly take the roof off the building. It’s thoroughly deserved as he’s clearly the best on the night. Second spot is a much closer affair between Emily Cartwright and Anthony Grogan, with Emily shading it by the narrowest of margins. It’s slightly unlucky for Anthony, but hopefully I’ll get to see him again to find out what really happened with those anal beads.
If you’re at a loose end on a Monday night, I’d highly recommend heading along to the Frog & Bucket for their Beat The Frog night. You’ll see all sorts of sights on stage, from the confident performers to the terrified nervous wrecks giving it a go for the first time. But it’s a lot of fun, and you might even catch an early glimpse of one of the stars of the future. All for the bargain price of just £6 (or £11 and you get a pizza thrown in as well).