Richard Herring: The Headmaster's Son

DVD review by Steve Bennett

Richard Herring’s one of the safest bets in Edinburgh, reliably producing thoughtful, stimulating and well-constructed shows. In 2008, he surpassed himself with the impeccable The Headmaster’s Son, now released on DVD in an extended version by discerning indie label Go Faster Stripe.

The show, recorded at the Bristol Tobacco Factory, examines whether the boy maketh the man. Herring, by his own admission, is something of a dysfunctional adult, still, in his fifth decade, leading the itinerant life of a reckless comedian: a single man seeking the laughter of strangers and sex wherever he can get it.

Pyschologists tend to attribute adult behaviour to childhood trauma, but Herring grew up in middle-class comfort, the son of a stable, respectable, happily married couple in Cheddar. This – to his apparent disappointment – is no stand-up equivalent of the ‘misery memoir’, as the only thing he can think of that was unusual about his upbringing is that he may have been treated differently at school, since his dad was the headmaster.

The monologue starts straight in the thick of it – no ‘how you all doing?’ shilly-shallying here – with a story of the time he belched loudly in an Ascension assembly, prompting a beautifully irreverent set piece about Jesus rising to heaven.

There then follows a lot of incidents from his youth, of unrequited crushes and of making an arse of himself in lessons. This scene-setting takes a while to hit its stride, but is lifted immeasurably by the discovery of Herring’s teenage diaries, full of self-important angst and simplistic politics – and that’s when the show really starts to soar.

At school, he had that familiar teenage mix of naivity and self-deluded arrogance, believing he would Grow Up to become ‘a mixture of Keates and Jesus’. Quarter of a century on, his stand-up persona hasn’t moved on much – but the addition of a generous helping of self-awareness transforms him from ridiculous and petulant to ridiculous and hilarious.

The headmaster’s son maguffin is a little overplayed, as if he has to keep reminding us of the theme, but it does little to detract from the strength of the often ironic comic set pieces it links. The gloriously theatrical argument between the grown-up Herring and his teenage self is a tour-de-force: very existential, but very funny, too.

Since Herring has never quite shed his childish ways, this intelligent study of how we are supposed to mature is tempered with plenty of jokes about masturbating. It’s not all high-brow, that’s for sure, but his grossest jokes always come with at least the fig leaf of acdemic rigour.

You’re left with a complete picture of the socially awkward young Herring – and there is a wealth of DVD extras to give you even more of an insight, should you want it – that you will pity, laugh at and laugh with in equal measure.

And his gag-rich train of thought about nurture vs nature builds towards an impressive and heartfelt conclusion more satisfying than most plays, let alone stand-up shows.

Running time: 99 mins
Extras: Preview version of the show (42 mins) recorded at Manchester Frog & Bucket; Before We Started filming (5min preamble); Video podcast (67mins); The Pupil’s Father (25min interview with Herring’s dad); The Kings Of Wessex - revisiting his school (19mins); Rich’s Diary, more extracts (20mins); Great Fire Of London (animation by Terry Saunders, 5 mins); As It Occurs To Me mini documentary about his podcast (5 mins); Who Is Virgilio Anderson (5 mins) music video featuring Herring; The Girl Does Nothing (3 mins) another music video featuring Herring; photo gallery
Released by: Go Faster Stripe on February 11
Price: £15. Click here to buy

Published: 16 Feb 2010

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