John Ryan: Those Young Minds

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

It may be unkind, but I must to admit to a hefty distrust of the very idea of a stand-up show commissioned solely to push a message, even when it’s as worthy as the mental health one promoted by YoungMinds.

It seems almost a betrayal of the idea of the comedian as a free spirit at liberty to say whatever they want, when you know the very idea has gone through various committees checking it fulfils all sort of dry public-service buzzwords.

Indeed, the blurb for Those Young Minds talks of ‘making mental health accessible and attractive,’ ‘assessing information and support’, ‘gaining a greater self-awareness of the issues’ and ‘challenging the real and perceived barriers’. Hardly the most sexy – or funny – starting points.

So it’s a great relief that John Ryan wears all these objectives lightly, ensuring that this charity-backed endeavour does, for the most part, stand up as a comedy show in its own right. Or, at the very least, an entertaining lecture about the trials of parenthood.

The messages that YoungMinds want to get across are certainly present – that dads should engage more with their children; that it’s OK not to have all the answers, and that there’s help and advice out there for the taking – but not battered home relentlessly.

What most obviously differentiates this from most stand-up shows is the audience. It’s not really aimed at comedy die-hards, and this Soho Theatre performance has the feel of a parenting workshop. People feel free to lob in questions and the women, especially, seem keen to take up the cudgels when they feel Ryan is underplaying the importance of mothers. Or, bizarrely, when he gets his Superman mythology wrong.

Ryan keeps a lid on all of this good-natured badinage with the compering techniques he’s learned from his years on the circuit. His upbeat, chatty banter might employ a lot of familiar tricks, but it asserts his authority without alienating the well-meaning crowd.

As for the bulk of his show… well, he generally plays it quite safe with broad-brushed observational material. Much of it is in the generic ‘aren’t blokes useless?’ or ‘kids say the funniest things’ vein, but other anecdotes are more personal, touching on his relationship with his own children, and his own dad. It’s these things that have a stronger appeal – even if they don’t make any use of the community fatherhood workshops Ryan lead as part of the wider project behind this show.

So on one hand there are some enjoyably vivid descriptions, such as his father boring him as punishment rather than raise his fist, on the other, he can only scratch the surface of some complex, but potentially very funny, issues – such as the Fathers4Justice movement.

The pitch of his performance also needs more variety. A routine that starts ‘When I was seven, I killed a boy…’ is treated with the same levity as a story of him ogling the midwife’s breasts at his son’s birth, when this could so very clearly be mined for much more dramatic effect.

There are many entertaining sections, but also many unexploited opportunities to get to the personal heart of fatherhood, which other comics have successfully achieved: Jason Cook’s Edinburgh show last year, and a brilliant but little-seen show by now-retired stand-up John Dowie half a decade ago spring to mind.

Ultimately, there’s a sense that Ryan, good-natured performer that he is, is trying to be all things to all men. Whether that’s a result of any charity’s natural urge to be all-inclusive, or his own approach to comedy, who can tell?

But if he concentrated on his own experiences and emotions, more than what he was told by other dads at those workshops, this would be a stronger show for it, and the message could still be conveyed.

As it stands, this show is perfectly fine. But it’s not the Daddy…

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Soho Theatre, June 2008

Review date: 12 Jun 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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