Hal Sparks: Charmageddon

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

In the States, Hal Sparks is well-known for his acting – mainly thanks to the US version of Queer As Folk – as well as a sometime musician with his rock band Zero1.

But it is as a stand-up that he is currently making his London – although any notion that he is some Los Angeles dilettante dabbling in just another performance genre is quickly dismissed. He’s a relaxed, assured comic who manages to escape the American disease of putting slick delivery over mediocre content by actually having some worthwhile, consensus-challenging opinions to share.

Although occasionally smug in his outlook, he is more likely to underplay any provocative intent. In style, he’s a lot more mainstream than the impassioned iconoclasts who become must-see cult hits, but be in no doubt that there are fresh ideas at play here. And in case you are, he’s not ashamed to remind you of the fact by telling how he had to move out of his native Kentucky for ‘thinking too much’. Yet it’s not an empty boast; he has original thoughts about everything from the origins of grunge music to the social impact of flirtatious ‘sexting’ that are always worth hearing.

‘I’m not one of those people who will tell you men and women are different,’ he says at another point, again rather blatantly stating his own originality, but it does lead to his finest routine – a funny and insightful description of how different human interactions would be if male and female genitals were surreally reversed. As heterosexual as they come, despite the role that made him famous, he’s not abashed by telling us his thoughts on relationships.

Pedantry is one of his key weapons. That he loves playing with language is obvious from his eloquent writing (‘I was captain of the analogy team at High School,’ he jokes). So anyone who misuses it is liable to be on the end of his sharp tongue, from coffee shops selling ‘unsweetened’ tea to his friend who can’t help but say empty phrases such as, ‘That’s the last thing you want’. And no, he’s not the first person to take such idioms literally nor to complain about drinks coming in only ‘medium’ and ‘large’ but not ‘small’– but as part of a wider routine, you know it comes from the heart.

Tea is pretty much the extent of his vices, but looking so much younger than his 40 years, Sparks is a good advertisement for not drinking, smoking or doing drugs. Although he makes an excellent point about why he shouldn’t be defined by what he doesn’t do – as well as delivering some harsh home truths to those who do indulge.

Only his extended Michael Jackson segment feels stale; those child-abuse claims being covered by so many comedians that finding fresh ground is difficult. And while Sparks wraps up the familiar opinions well, there’s no escaping the fact they are familiar opinions.

Even after a few shows over here, he does use a few American-specific references that unnecessarily screw up his otherwise sharp timing, as it takes the audience a beat or two to try to work out what he means by VFW, Sandy Duncan, Jolly Ranchers or EMT. These are rare slip-ups in an otherwise exceptional delivery, combining commitment to his material, fluid links and the ability to ambush the audience into accepting his more outrageous pronouncements by charm and stealth.

These few nights at London’s Soho Theatre are only a tentative toe in the waters of British stand-up, but he’s certainly made a good first impression.

Review date: 18 Jun 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Soho Theatre

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