New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 25 September, 2003

Being funny is sometimes a matter of carefully developed craft, sometimes a blessed gift. Tommy Tiernan has both the gift and the craft, and they blend in an act that last month netted him the audience-voted Nokia Orange award for the most popular show at any of the various festivals Edinburgh hosts in August. The Galway-based comic has now brought his current show Tell Me A Story into the West End for a month of late-night weekend shows at the New Ambassadors Theatre, alternating with weeknight forays around the rest of Britain.

But here's a thing. Normally, you'd expect a comedian to use their craft to build on the foundations of their gift and carry them over passages when the gift might desert them. With Tiernan, it's almost the opposite. He keeps himself leashed too tightly for too much of the hour. Oh, the well honed stuff has more than its share of inspiration as well. He's a lot cleverer than his shambling-bouncing, bellowing lig of a persona lets on. During one bit he remarks, "Your mother would go into hieroglyphics," and you think it's just a throwaway malapropism until he starts throwing shapes that deliciously illustrate what he means.

But the bulk of the show, for all its novel perspective, inhabits standard territory: his children, his upbringing, that comedy staple the Irish Catholic education, anal sex and so on. Paradoxically, it's during the first 20 minutes or so, with stuff that I suspect he's still trying out and bedding down, that he really catches fire. The subjects are often even more archetypal Irish, Israelis, even impersonating an African evangelical priest but the material's given such a hefty push in unexpected places that it just takes flight. He takes a cliché like the Irish love of profanity and gives it a Noam Chomsky twist: "The English language is like a brick wall, and 'fuck' is our chisel." But then he hits cruising speed and, well, cruises.

Watching Tommy Tiernan is rather like listening to one of the old-school British blues guitarists such as Eric Clapton: he knows all the chord changes, all the scales, has his own characteristic "chops" and phrasings, and is an expert. But it's when he risks a little uncertainty and unfamiliarity that your heart goes out to meet his.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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