Mark Steel

Was the Féile an Phobail audience justified in booing the comedian off stage? Tara West thinks so  

The queue is round the block for Mark Steel's sell-out gig at the Black Box. Beardy lefties and middle-aged armchair socialists quiz one another, 'A queue? But we've got tickets!' These people aren't used to being kept waiting, but they should be, because let's face it, you can wait a long time in Belfast for the kind of erudite wit and linguistic mastery the likes of Mark Steel bring.

As reports of Steel's last appearance in Belfast suggest, not everyone likes his brand of comedy. The broadcaster, writer, commentator and political activist was booed off at the Féile an Phobail Festival in west Belfast a couple of years ago, but tonight he describes his Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival audience as 'sedate, in a County cricket kind of way'. 

Tonight is part of the Mark Steel's in Town tour. Steel has visited cities and towns across Great Britain, turning local facts into material and telling stories about the places he visits. It's a nice idea: relevant topical commentary with original angles and sparks of insight. That's what I hope anyhow.

Steel opens the show with violent energy and loud invective. 'It's mad! It's mental!' he rants about the Royal wedding. When a few audience members admit to looking forward to William and Kate's nuptials, he pigeonholes us all: 'I know which side of the f**king town you're all from!' he scoffs.

But it's not all about Belfast or other towns. Steel covers ageing, sex, parenthood, retail parks and call centres. The audience creases up at his hip-hop pensioner, George Galloway impression, London lorry rage, and Mark Lemarr showbiz anecdote. Apart from an uninspired and sexist joke about Ann Widdecombe, it's funny, fresh and informed. Until he starts on the towns.

Steel operates a slide show, showing us Swanley, the 's**thole' where he grew up, followed by various other 's**tholes' he has visited including Gateshead, Merthyr Tydfil, Milton Keynes, Walsall, Wigan, Huddersfield, Penzance and others.

I'm not sure whether he's celebrating their whimsical eccentricities or ranting against their soullessness and mediocrity, but it goes on so long there are yawns and sighs. A man gets up and leaves for a bus. Maybe west Belfast had a point.

When talking about Belfast, Steel is on unfamiliar and sometimes shaky ground. His jokes about murals, the ceasefire and the 'most bombed hotel in Europe' are anachronistic and superficial. It's the kind of material local comedians have done before and done better.

He gets it right when he points out how misguided it is to celebrate the Titanic, but gets it so wrong when he says religion should be sorted out at football matches. Apparently, frustrations should be vented through chanting, and then we can all go to the pub. I get the feeling he hasn't seen the news. Or at least, he hasn't given it any thought.

The 'in town' idea promises lots of topical original comedy, but in practice, Steel doesn't have enough insight, and the material feels peripheral and thin. By contrast, when he talks about his daily life, his family and in particular, his 14 year old son, it is deeply touching and very funny.

The show ends abruptly and Steel disappears out the back to enthusiastic but short-lived applause. We're still fans but maybe next time he'll share more on his changing role of firebrand as father, rather than firebrand as cynical tourist. The material would be much more valuable.

Check out our What's On listings for information on all Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival events.