Cockney comic Sean Lock gets the Belfast treatment, writes Lee Henry
At the 2006 Belfast Festival, comedian Stewart Lee brought an intentionally controversial routine to the rather stuffy Elmwood Hall, exploring the depths to which comedians might sink - and the limits of the Belfast audience’s tolerance threshold - in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.
It was a systematic attack on PC society by the writer of Jerry Springer – The Opera, and as brave as they come. But in 2007 the good folk at the Belfast Festival are playing it safe, bypassing the controversial for the mainstream with names like Bill Bailey, Frank Skinner and Sean Hughes topping the comedy bill.
Perhaps best known as team captain on Channel 4’s 8 Out of 10 Cats, cockney comic Sean Lock kicked off the proceedings at this year’s festival with an upgrade from the Elmwood to the larger and much more glamorous Whitla Hall.
Unlike Lee, Lock doesn’t go out of his way to push people’s buttons. The two might share a love of the surreal, an effortless ability to whittle out the absurd nature of everyday things, and a devastating dead-pan delivery, but Lock’s is an altogether more down-to-earth, everyman comedy, grounded in the working-class language of London t'aan where urinating tramps are commonplace and rolly tobacco counts as one the five daily portions of fruit and veg.
That’s not to say that Lock doesn’t chide the Belfast audience. On the ever-fertile subject of the male/female divide, his observation that 'if a woman’s work is never done, perhaps that’s why they get paid less', has pockets of the audience whistling in good-humoured protest. But Lock’s comedy does not provoke righteous indignation, and nobody leaves early, despite the rugby.
This was the first time that Lock had played to a Belfast audience, and it was a night of discovery for him. Throughout the routine he frequently acknowledges that other audiences hadn’t taken to many of his jokes as unconditionally as the Belfast crowd. But from the off he was at his ease, strolling up and down the stage in his laid-back element, never once falling flat or losing the audience's attention.
‘Tuck in your shirt!’ someone shouts, ‘the weirdest heckle I’ve ever had,’ admits Lock. And by the time he proclaims himself ‘The Riddler’, tearing open his shirt and pulling down his trousers to reveal a lime green, Lycra-clad body emblazoned with a huge question mark (I guess you had to be there) the audience was lubricated enough to offer compliments first-hand. ‘You’ve got a nice arse!’ one young man contributed. ‘You’re no Wogan!’ offered another.
From the look on Lock’s face, I got the feeling that he’d be back for more.