Good Mourning Mrs Brown

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

I live about 20 minutes from the Hammersmith Apollo, but tonight it feels more like 35 years. Mrs Brown’s Boys is unashamedly old-fashioned – which is arguably its appeal – but it’s so cliched, crass and obvious that its success is baffling.

But successful it undoubtedly is. Brendan O'Carroll's no-nonsense Irish mammy with the filthy laugh has long been a cult theatrical phenomenon, but buoyed by the BBC One sitcom, and its astonishing Bafta nomination, he can now fill five nights at the Hammersmith Apollo as part of a monster UK tour.

And these aren’t just casual viewers, but full-on fans. The roar that greets curtain-up is deafening; the first laugh shakes the building to the foundations. And what formidable line of comic genius provokes such a response? ‘Will you fuck off?’

This crowd LOVE swearing, which is a good job as it’s in every line, and more often than not it’s O’Carroll’s aggressive attitude that gets the reaction, rather than any joke. Yet – and I may be being presumptive here – this audience seem exactly like the sort of mainstream viewers who would berate an ‘alternative’ comedian for bad language, arguing it’s the last resort of the witless as ‘you don’t have to swear to be funny’. Yet In The Mouth of a man pretending to be a domineering elderly busybody, it’s considered not only acceptable, but inherently hilarious. Swearing is not a prop here, it’s the only thing getting a laugh.

Everyday phrases are greeted with howls of delight, too. The euphemism ‘hide the sausage’, saying Donegal is full of sheep-shaggers... that’s the sort of thing that elicits gales of laughter. How this audience get through a normal day’s conversation without cracking themselves up is a mystery.

Innuendo is a huge part of this Seventies throwback, of course, right down to a line about ‘Mrs Valentine’s pussy’ that even Mollie Sugden might think was unsubtle. When a man appears in a giant chicken costume, you know a line about a ‘giant cock’ isn’t far behind. Ooh, I said behind.

To fuel the double entendres, one of Mrs Brown’s sons is gay. So camply, queenishly gay that he makes Alan Carr look like Peter Tatchell. Mrs Brown thinks homosexuality is an ‘illness’... and when challenged by one of the other characters, parries: ‘Well, it’s not fucking normal.’ But at least, if we give the benefit of the doubt, this is a line that could work on two levels – mocking her ignorance as well as celebrating homophobia. Most lines don’t even work on one level.

‘Other characters’ is a bit of a push, too. Though there’s quite a sizeable cast – including stand-up Smug Roberts in a minor role – they are only there as interruptions to Mrs Brown’s full-on monologue, and rarely get a punchline of any description. They do provide some semblance of plot, though, with a story about a fake funeral so grandpa can hear his own eulogies and her petty burglar son trying to go straight as he prepares for fatherhood. Despite his best intentions, he breaks into a warehouse with his accomplice who, stumbling around in the dark declares: ‘I think I’ve found a PlayStation 2’... only to receive the response: ‘Those are my balls.’ Which doesn’t work at all as an exchange, but still gets a huge laugh. Balls are funny, you see.

For all the swearing, Good Mourning Mrs Brown is actually most reminiscent of a children’s TV show. Everything has to be writ huge, while Agnes would be the naughty character the kids identify with, scoring petty points against the other grown-ups, dancing around like an eejit, and hamming it up like crazy. A real mammy would tell her off for ‘showing off’ as there’s never a moment when the performance isn’t in overdrive.

O’Carroll can be more subtle than this; there are moments when the flicker of mischief across his face is a delight. And in the writing, too, is an occasional deft malapropism or subtle aside - but they are swamped under the tsunami of crude mugging.

Yet it can’t be overstated how much the other 3,000-plus people in the venue lapped this up – and that includes the cast. Rory Cowan, who plays the spangly-shirted gay one, corpses so often he barely gets his lines out, and the other actors frequently suppress a chuckle as well. Apparently O’Carroll has a habit of riffing spontaneously – and that playfulness is one positive aspect that does shine through the weak script. And on a technical level, it’s well put-together, with a neat storyline closure, an uplifting song to end, and decent production values.

And yes, I am desperately struggling to see some positives in this unfortunate anachronism. If this is the apex of popular comedy in 2011, it’s quite a depressing thought.

Review date: 17 Jun 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Eventim Apollo

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