Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2

Opened 7 September, 2009


Earlier this summer saw a brief but intense media debate about the alleged existence of a “new offensiveness” in comedy. Although the extent of various individuals’ involvement in this development is open to argument, it seems to me unquestionable that popular culture has coarsened over the last 10–15 years, resulting in a climate where humiliation and scorn are common currency, whether in talent/reality TV, celebrity-led tabloid journalism or indeed comedy. What I did not expect was to find myself reacting with such strong negativity to Ed Byrne, usually considered one of the more amiable top-flight stand-ups in these islands.
The main thesis of the Dublin-born comic’s show (which he has been touring for over a year now and which plays two weeks in the West End to coincide with its DVD release) is that he doesn’t quite fit in as either working-class or middle-class. He shapes the material well, from the early put-it-this-way gag that his family was neither rich enough nor poor enough to own a horse. Also fecund sources of material are his wedding last year and a series of musings upon l’esprit d’escalier responses. But it was here that I began to feel uneasy, a feeling that intensified rather than dissipating.
Put baldly, all the female characters who appear to any significant extent in his first-half material are objects of hostility, be they self-aggrandising footballers’ WAGs, the women’s society at his old university or a drunk woman in a bar in Cork. He ostensibly sides with the cause of feminism (imagining the ghost of suffragette martyr Emily Davison wanting to beat up those over-earnest students), but what kind of support is it to give only negative examples of the sex? He also notes, “I’m a bloke; we don’t like anyone thinking we’re too nice”, but surely being aware of this impulse and still indulging it counts as an aggravating rather than a mitigating factor. And of course, the material is masterfully crafted for maximum comic impact, but craftsmanship is no excuse either. Even his second-half praise of his wife is dissipated when he goes into a crassly reactionary riff about her snoring. Byrne is, as I say, hugely likeable in character, which makes this experience all the more of an unpleasant surprise... like looking at an apple before taking a second bite and finding not a worm but half a worm.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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