Jason Byrne: Shy Pigs With Wigs Hidden In Twigs

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

Jason Byrne knows how to make an audience feel special. ‘Youse are the maddest crowd ever,’ he says with incredulous glee, repeating the mantra time and again: ‘You’re all mental… fucking insane.’

It’s a rather disingenuous form of reverse compliment. In truth, this Monday night crowd seem rather quiet. But tell people something often enough, they start to believe it – so eventually this manic Dubliner gets an atmosphere going, though he works himself into quite a sweat in the process.

The obvious truth is that the nuttiest person in the Apollo Theatre tonight is on stage. With wildly disobedient hair, and intense eyes, Byrne looks the part of a man on the verge of insanity, and the rabid passion with which he gets worked up about the most minor of irritations only cements that image.

His approach combines the comedy of impotent anger with sheer enthusiasm for people and their quirks. The two sides should be mutually incompatible, but somehow Byrne fuses them magically together. He enjoys just larking about, goading the audience into taking part in his madcap schemes, but gets highly vexed when the responsibilities of the real world intrude on his malarkey.

Marriage, especially, he portrays as a millstone around anyone’s neck, seeing it as a bitter, trenchant war of attrition between husband and wife, both spitefully determined never to let the other side ever have fun again.

But if it wasn’t for relationships, Byrne wouldn’t have his two children, and his seven-year-old, in particular, proves a rich source of material. ‘A drunken tramp who lives with us,’ the comic describes his hyperactive son, who is prone to saying the most direct, inappropriate things – but out of honesty and naivety rather than any malice. You suspect Byrne envies him.

Not that he holds back when it comes to engaging the audience, and most of the first half and some of the second is taken up with imagining bizarre scenarios based on the scant feedback the ticket-holders offer him – whether it be the unfeasibly posh latecomers in row A, or the man wilfully vague about the simplest questions about his place of residence or relationship status.

This takes a while to warm up, but Byrne’s a master at weaving between the banter and the material. Only once does he appear to slip up, abandoning a section about euphemisms for sex after he becomes distracted by a semi-random yell of ‘Newcastle’ from the stalls. But then it was probably best we moved on…

The freeform approach is devastatingly effective at building a mild hysteria among even the most conservative of crowds, ensuring his pre-planned material about the likes of unfriendly Londoners, Catholic guilt and his disastrous appearance on the Royal Variety Show gets the best of receptions. It’s a genuine shame that his biggest televised gig wasn’t his finest hour, as it will deprive a lot of potential fans of the joy of seeing Byrne in full, majestic flow.

He expends so much energy in performance that he risks being slapped with an eco-tax. Lines are delivered bent double, as he holds his head in disbelief at whatever stupidity’s attracted his attention this time; he drops into silly caricatures as exaggerated as you’ll find on South Park; and even strides the stage with a ridiculous goosestep not seen since John Cleese’s day.

It all adds to the maelstrom of madness, which reaches its climax with a brilliantly hilarious slice of audience participation – roping in a handful of game volunteers to recreate an illusion with such virtuosic comic incompetence that he makes Tommy Cooper look like David Copperfield.

This should be the finale, as it’s simply unstoppable, and the few bits of routine after this cannot hope to match this maniacal high. It’s a world away from the rather cool atmosphere at the show’s outset – and testament to Byrne’s incredible ability to manipulate an audience that he took us so far in the course of a single performance.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
September 18, 2007

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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