Before Russell Howard took to the stage this evening, it was announced that as this was his 9th consecutive solo performance at the Royal Albert Hall he had broken a longstanding record of 8 appearances set by one Francis Albert Sinatra.
I never thought that I would be using these two performers’ names in the same piece of writing but as Russell’s show began I started to see a similarity. Frank Sinatra used to sing a song called ‘It Was A Very Good Year’. It dealt with his transition through life from his teenage years (‘when I was 17… it was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights’) through to his twilight ones (‘but now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of the years, and now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs’). Which is all very interesting – but what the honking nose does it have to do with the lovely Bristolian clown Russell Howard? Well tonight for the first time I saw a maturing and powerful clown shackled by his own audience.
Russell owned the 5,000-seater room of the Royal Albert Hall like few others could. Despite the size the layout felt intimate and Russell’s banter about his family and school life felt tried, tested and natural. And then something happened… Russell began to get political. In terms of major-party politics, he wasn’t particularly in the business of taking sides (although pointing out that ‘jowly c*nt’ Nigel Farage had no right to speak for us or to apologise to Trump on the UK’s behalf was welcome), but more personal political. The NHS, cyberbullying and teenage girls who self-harm were all passionately dealt with and the pain that being unable to do anything more than joke about these subjects was causing – and the limits of his platform as a mainstream comic in getting his message out – was clearly evident on his face.
The audience (myself included) laughed throughout – but there were moments when the laughs felt misplaced. Russell wanted us to think, to consider what he was actually saying. He always reverted back to his tried and tested tales about his mum hula-hooping away bad news and his own (fictitious) intellectually inadequacies but there was something else here this time, something burning and screaming to get out.
In much the same way that Sinatra blossomed from romantic ballads for ‘Bobby-soxers’ to a bellowing tour de force that everyone from presidents to the mafia respected, Russell Howard may need to fully unleash the poignant political comic that is fighting to get out. And I for one cannot wait to see it – and would gladly pay good money to do so.
Clown Stars: * * * * *
@Royal Albert Hall, London