Review: Sean Hughes, Tricycle Theatre

Sean Hughes

The bobbies on the beat might be getting younger but you can tell that the comedians are getting older by the number doing shows about mid-life crises and their ailing parents. Mark Thomas' Bravo Figaro!, about his opera-loving tyrant of a dad, set the bar high, but coming up fast on the inside rail is Sean Hughes' Life Becomes Noises, about his father's death from cancer.

This racing metaphor is apt, because as well as being a heavy drinker Hughes' father used to like a flutter on the horses and regularly came home in a rage when he had blown his wages. This biographical detail accidentally adds a nice new topical edge to this show, which premiered in Edinburgh last summer. "What's your beef with horses?" Sean recalls saying to his dad at one point, the pun very much intended.

Long-time Hughes fans will remember his nineties C4 series Sean's Show and despite the darkness of the subject this has the same sort of post-modern narrative playfulness, as Hughes shuttles between stand-up banter and seated chat next to an onstage hospital bed. He used to be obsessed with Morrissey, Hughes, now 47, is angrily obsessed with the state of the NHS, bemoaning the depressing mood in terminal illness wards. Why don't they have funfairs attached – "no queuing" – to make the journey into oblivion more enjoyable?

Along the way some familiar comedy themes are weaved neatly into the arc. Hughes cleverly references the much-mocked way that pop music is used to manipulate our emotions and while probing the failings of the NHS discusses his own recent prostate test. I have a theory that civilians don't get a rectal examination. This is only given to comedians so that they can get material out of it – in the last week alone I've heard Micky Flanagan and Louis CK do prostate-based gags and two hours before the show, on the way to this gig, Fred MacAulay did one on Radio 4.

Hughes does have a tendency to gabble a little and could do with projecting more. I couldn't see a credit for a director and maybe another hand on the vocal tiller would tighten up his delivery. But this does not detract too much from his performance, which is sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes both at the same time. It is not exactly Samuel Beckett but Hughes, still single, no kids, does have his own distinctive take on the idea of bleak, existential poetry. There are some beautifully constructed callbacks and a sharply satirical set-piece where his chain-smoking mother visits the north London church she got married in many years ago, which now has an African congregation.

The heart of the matter, however, is Hughes wrestling with his difficult relationship with his father. After all the throwaway gags about him disappointing his dad because he never became a jockey and won the Derby and how his father being a driving instructor taught his son to drink-drive - which wasn't easy in the days before cup holders – Life Becomes Noises ends on a touchingly sincere note about the functions and responsibilities of parenthood. Hughes might not have won the Derby but he certainly wins over his audience with this elegant, eloquent comic tribute.

Life Becomes Noises is at The Arts Theatre, London tonight

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