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Sean Hughes: Penguins

Note: This review is from 2013

Review by Steve Bennett

This is a more theatrical show than you might expect from Sean Hughes, building on the approached he used for last year’s story about his father’s death, Life Becomes Noises. As a piece of stand-up, Penguins is rather muted, but it’s so tender, touching and warmly amusing that it leaves you satisfied.

The titular birds, it should be explained, are the schoolchildren huddling in packs as they waddle to class, although there’s more to the metaphor than that. These are the supposedly halcyon days he casts his mind back to, trying to recall formative experiences from his Irish upbringing that made him the screwed-up man he is today: unmarried, childless, pessimistic and considered something of a weirdo by his community.

If he wears around town the same off-the-shoulder dress than he does on stage, that would explain why his neighbours give him a wide berth. Revealing every unflattering lump of his 47-year-old drinker’s body, the outfit is never really explained, but we soon get used to it.

Are your schooldays the best days of your life? Hughes doubts it, feeling he was let down by the adults and never accepted by his peers. His brother had to explain sex, and it wasn’t pretty. But he found his salvation in music, in bands like Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Human League, although even they let him down in the end.

Hughes uses the simple but effective device of using children’s clothes to conjure up the characters of his youth. At one especially sensitive point, these tiny avatars drive home the heartache of teenage romantic rejection and the comforting arm of a sibling, in a way words can never do.

There are some sections that are close to stand-up, as Hughes talks generally about the overprotection of children, the spread of technological convenience, and, in possibly the most controversial comment this festival, suggesting Breaking Bad isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He even cracks an old pub joke – or monastery joke, to be accurate – which bookends the show. At the start, it’s a simple punchline, at the other something more mature and complicated to show Hughes’s development over the decades-long span of the hour.

For Penguins is not a show about generic observations, but a story that’s personal to him,  from frank confessions of post-orgasmic depression to, poignantly, his description of the dying days of a relationship, played out claustrophobically while on holiday. For a comedy show, it’s intense, soul-baring and more than a little ambiguous. For quick laughs look elsewhere, but for something that leaves more of an impression, Hughes is your man.

Review date: 15 Aug 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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