John-Luke Roberts: Stdad-Up | Review by Steve Bennett
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John-Luke Roberts: Stdad-Up

Note: This review is from 2015

Review by Steve Bennett

Making jokes about ‘dead dad’ Edinburgh shows is probably more of a cliche than the emotive shows themselves these days. But John-Luke Roberts offers his own fiercely distinctive take on the subject with this ambitious, ambiguous show that lurches around the issues, and the laughs, in the search of something more honest.

The Radio 4 writer has been training with the Gaulier clown school in Paris, and the results are visible in the bold, silly way he opens the show with both props and nudity. He’ll read a Philip Larkin poem – later to become one of the motifs that he’s proud to point out – and introduce ideas such as the ‘bell of truth’, a clever device for what it reveals when it’s not pinged, as much as when it is.

Gaulier comes out again in the loopy way Roberts transforms into his Birkenhead-born father Dr James Trevor Roberts, with the comedian’s naturally warm and authoritative voice – which would be perfect for reading audiobooks – yielding to a loud Scouse squawk.

In this incarnation, Roberts Sr’s aggressive, abrasive delivery is ear-splittingly loud, with several audience members wincing with their fingers in their lug holes each time he hollered. Volume might seem like a trivial complaint, but when it’s physically uncomfortable to listen to a lengthly performance it’s makes it impossible to enjoy.

The dad ‘character’ reads out the succession of surreal, witheringly abusive putdowns that have long been the most entertaining staple of Roberts’ smart shows, but this time given a twist as they come from a domineering, harsh parent, who constantly orders the audience – and by extension his son – to apologise for a perceived misdeed. A volunteer is recruited to bear the brunt of this cathartic disdain, but we all feel it.

Meanwhile, Roberts Jr – smarting from a relationship breakdown that adds another layer of emotional fragility to the tone – mulls the way a joke is a moment of confusion followed by a moment of clarity. It seems that for life in general such resolution of uncertainty should be a good thing, but the comedian is not so sure.

This is typical of the compelling, thought-provoking, unpredictable tone of the hour, that doesn’t always result in laughs, not least because of the overbearing tension in the father-son relationship. But it always remains fascinating, both for its content and what Roberts is doing with the form.

True to the archetype, Robert’s consideration of that subject leads to an emotionally-charged finale, but not the one you might expect. Instead he’s left questioning the exploitation of real, complex people as comic stooges to confer emotional heft on stand-up material. He gets the same result, but via an enthrallingly different route.

Review date: 31 Aug 2015
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: PBH's Free Fringe @ Voodoo Rooms

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