The Comedy Room, the Old Fire Station's stand-up showcase, is a great way to see talented comedians with whom you may not be familiar, and this riotous instalment was no exception. The MCs are musical satirists Jonny & the Baptists (aka Jonny Donahoe and Paddy Gervers), and as they admit, they are not your regular compères. The bearded, jovial Donahoe is somewhere between Friar Tuck and a young Brian Blessed, and plays off a meek Oxford audience well: have a drink at the interval, he tells us, or go for a big poo. Their songs are brilliant and viciously witty, presenting grifting, lefty solutions to socio-political ills, such as making black pudding out of the Queen or arming foxes to fight their hunters. Elsewhere, the duo ponder the awkward father-son conversation between Isaac and Abraham (post-attempted sacrifice of course) and how making recycling easier would be top of the to-do list if Donahoe was imbued with divine powers. It's rip-roaring and unpredictable warm-up for the audience.
Evelyn Mok was taken ill before the show, so in stepped Scottish comedian Eleanor Morton, opening with a table-turning gag about bad days and wearing the same outfit. Morton is immediately likable, wry and self-deprecating. She tears into the hen night formula: stupidly large Whatsapp chats with strangers, nights out in regional towns, the frisson of excitement at disembodied penis decorations or the suggestion of pole dancing. There was some improvisation too, as the audience named films and Morton gave the plot of the all-female remake. As with any improv, she was dependent on the quality of the suggestions, but at her best she was hilarious - her versions of Groundhog Day and Joker were the pick of the bunch. There was a good segment on "having the chat" too, that nightmare conversation trying to establish what stage of a relationship you're at, but the party piece, an improv freestyle rap on a historical period, fell a little flat. This might be down to new material lacking a little polish, or just the difficulty of being called into the line-up at the last minute. For the most part though, Morton was whimsical and witty.
The second half kicked off with more superb songs from our hosts, including an phenomenal ode to Angela Merkel ("you're the Pilsner to my Urquell") and a one-man duet where Jonny responded to whingers on Twitter. Main act Bilal Zafar, who was nominated as Best Newcomer at the Fringe, then made a slapstick entrance, having got lost on the way from the dressing room, and immediately seemed a fluid and polished performer. He riffed off interfaith gigs, having played to rooms of 200 vicars MC'd by a bishop, and made well-meaning blunder at a synagogue. There's mock panic at an unpaid British Gas bill and a sarcastic unpicking of how to join in with workplace banter. But Zafar's more personal material is his best. He laid bare bodily insecurity, reflecting with immense satisfaction (and no remorse) on a nose job he got done in Turkey, acknowledging that that's not how we're supposed to feel about plastic surgery. He's self-conscious about his height too, and considers getting big insoles so that he can ask someone out, but wonders at what point it's acceptable to reveal the fraud. Even when going off-script, Zafar transitions smoothly from joke to joke, and he's a brilliant raconteur with a real ear for tone and delivery. Checking his watch and wondering out loud if new material will work, he proceeded with a hilarious routine about navigating (or floundering) through the caste system on Minder (yes, it's really called that).
Throughout Morton and Zafar's routines, you can hear the MCs cackling behind the curtain. There's no real sense of showbiz pomposity here, no barrier between the audience and the comedians. Jonny & the Baptists nail the vibe that they're going for - the evening is light-hearted, free-flowing, and slightly chaotic, "like a folk gig where most people have forgotten their instruments". The Old Fire Station is an intimate venue, but for once that grossly over-used word rings true - it feels like you're joshing with friends at a party or at a pub, except that none of your friends are this funny. There's more to come in May and July, with the likes of George Egg, Josie Long (Donahoe's real-life partner) and Helen Duff on the bill. On this kind of form, The Comedy Room is a must-see.