Stand Up For Justice

Where there be darkness, let comedy bring light, writes Lee Henry

This year's Amnesty International Stand Up For Justice show at the Whitla Hall has its ups and downs - from temporary sound glitches to glam rock wind machines - but once again it manages to bring a sense of purpose to the Belfast Festival and turns an ordinary Tuesday night into something more eventful.

Tonight’s performance is in the name of one Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist and poet jailed in his homeland for sending an email – via Yahoo – to a pro-democracy website in the United States.

A projector ensures that an image of Shi Tao presides over proceedings, and postcards and pens are provided, encouraging audience members to join a petition campaigning for the release of Tao in the name of freedom of speech.

Dublin comedian Andrew Maxwell is our host for the evening, and turns out to be by far the best thing about the show.

That’s not to say that the other comedians featured (NI’s own Colin Murphy, London comic Josie Long and Australian Duke Special look-a-like Tim Minchin) don’t get any laughs, although even Long herself admits that her London-centric humour is, for the most part, lost on the Belfast crowd. But Maxwell brings a high-octane, spontaneous style to the stage that the crowd greatly appreciates.

When he asks if there are any internationals in the audience, and one female accent belies its Finnish origin, Maxwell launches into an off-the-cuff routine about his time spent in the Scandinavian country, replete with pesky kids and snowboards, and seems to enjoy the recollection as much as the rest of us.

Later he lets us into a decidedly Northern Irish predicament of his which sees a group of Sinn Fein Community Activists coercing him into doing a gig in a less-than-respectable west Belfast establishment. When he asks if they are in the IRA, they respond that not every Sinn Fein member is a member of the IRA. Perhaps, he notes, but it would be pretty safe to assume that every member of the IRA is in Sinn Fein. This decidedly southern logic has the house in fits. Anybody in from the DUP, he asks. The silence speaks volumes.

Murphy begins his set with predictable jokes centred around religion and politics – will NI comedians ever see beyond the past? – but finishes up on a high, ruing the smoking ban not as a smoker, but as a punter who misses directing cigarette butts toward the plug in pub urinals. This renews my faith in NI comedy.

Five minutes into Josie Long’s routine and I would have given anything for a stale old ‘Never, never, never!’ joke. Unfortunately Long seriously underestimates her audience. This is no saff London student's union, and her pseudo-vulnerable demeanour is instantly tiresome.

Almost none of Long’s punchlines land square. People take the opportunity to go for a cigarette or get more drinks. If humour is a universal language, she would do well with getting out of London for a while. Let’s hope she learns from her experience and comes back stronger next time around.

The last of the four acts arrives on stage after an impromptu mic failure, which sees Maxwell relating the second half of a story without amplification. Tim Minchin is an unknown quantity. In 2005 he won the Perrier Best Newcomer award at the Edinburgh Fringe for his show Dark Side, but I only know this because I Googled him after the fact. He’s huge, he appears like a cross between Duke Special and Russell Brand, the grand piano on stage is his, and he’s barefoot. ‘Hey, Duke Special,’ yells one audience member, ‘give us a song!’

Minchin smiles a wicked smile and seems only too happy to oblige. ‘Inflatable You’ is a pop-comedy song to beat all other pop-comedy songs. It’s upbeat, jazzy piano chords turn the Whitla Hall into a New York jazz lounge, and his lyrics are most certainly rated X.

Minchin claims to be uncomfortable in the ‘bits between songs’, when he has to regale the audience with jokes and funny observations, but his vulnerable act is infinitely more complex and confident than Long’s.

Three more songs follow, including the self-explanatory ‘Let Me Video You While You Wee’, and then we’re reminded why we’re all here. ‘I like charity shows,’ Minchin declares, ‘because I get to sing songs that have meaning.’
He launches into a Coldplay pastiche entitled ‘Bring Your Canvas Bags’, urging the public to reject plastic bags for more eco-friendly alternatives. He adopts Michael Jackson-esque dance moves and a Messiah stance, and exits stage right only to return with a wind machine for dramatic effect.

‘This has been the most haphazard charity gig I’ve ever done,’ Maxwell admits, admonishing the audience for their patience and participation. And as the crowd makes its way into the night, the name Shi Tao lingers on all of our minds.

Please visit the Amnesty International website and put your name to the campaign to free Tao and others like him who have been imprisoned by unjust regimes in their fight for freedom and democracy.