In the old days of variety, and before then, music hall, comedians were a motley crew of likely lads in loud suits eking out a living in faded theatres and working men’s clubs up north. There was something tawdry about them, something almost pathetic – think Archie Rice in John Osborne’s play The Entertainer. In the mid-1960s with the eruption of Oxbridge Edinburgh fringe shows and television programmes like That Was The Week That Was, Monty Python, The Goodies etc, being a cheeky chappy with a neat line in double entendres was not enough, you needed a first-class honours degree and be able to refer to Proust or Wittgenstein in your act before they’d even hand you the microphone. Comedy had become serious; mother-in-laws jokes, no matter how funny, were out, social comment and a keen political eye were in.
One such highly educated and threateningly brainy comedian is Irishman Dara Ó Briain (a graduate in mathematics and theoretical physics). But not only that, he is very amicable, like the favourite uncle who was guaranteed to give you your best present at Christmas.
Being a comedian is no laughing matter. It’s a hard slog, a long apprenticeship during which you can often outnumber your audience. Perseverance is as important as a good line in patter. Ó Briain has now been at the top of his game for the best part of twenty years since being the biggest-selling solo comedy show of the Edinburgh Festival in 2005.
His current show, So…Where Were We? played to a full house at the Amare last night, testament to his universal appeal. I had a famous actress friend in the UK who took part in a gala charity event along with an equally famous comedian. She said she watched his act from the wings and said she would happily have sold her soul to the devil for the ability to hold an audience in the palm of her hand, as that comedian did, two minutes after walking on stage. Ó Briain is like that, keeping a straight face is not an option. His sheer physical presence is more than enough to make you pay attention. He dominated the thirteen-hundred-seater room as though it was your family lounge. His delivery is often frenetic and with his Irish accent it’s sometime difficult to follow – his advice to those who can’t is to listen faster.
His stories range from his problem knee, the operations thereon and the consequent indignity of having to go around Alton Towers on a shop-mobility scooter, to the audience at a recent gig in Cologne. The Germans took unbounded delight in the problems caused to the British by Brexit and Mr Ó Briain wondered why they didn’t have a word for such self-satisfied gloating. We also learned of his childhood trauma of being dropped down a drain as a baby.
The second half continued on the theme of family with him revealing that he had been adopted, and never knowing who his birth mother was. He told of the hoops he had to jump through in a still cruel and repressive Ireland, to obtain his birth certificate and his finally meeting his real mother and the attendant large family that he didn’t know he had.
For a lone performer to hold an audience for well over two hours in a room that size is no mean feat and Dara Ó Briain never released his grip for one moment, regaling us with stories, that although hilarious, were often tinged with sad home truths.
Although I had seen Mr Ó Briain on the telly, I had never really watched him. My loss. He is a performer par excellence, a personality and ability that, one could say, was wasted on the stage. Just think, what if he went into politics? The UK has already had one recent Prime Minister who was a comedian and he was nowhere near as funny as Dara Ó Briain. Michael Hasted 18th January 2023