Clarkson, Hammond and May Live!

Dazzling vehicular displays and topical 'bantz' from the former Top Gear trio can't help distract motor novice John Higgins from the feeling of watching 'Dave' in an ice rink

I don’t drive. No, it’s worse than that – I can’t drive, I never learned. However, after being on the sharp end of Belfast’s Sunday service (I am probably the only person at the Odyssey Arena who came by bus) I am ready to be convinced.

And who better to convince me than Jeremy Clarkson, the crowned petrol head of England, the double-denimed deity of the dashboard. The man is, like it or not, an icon. If he stood for UKIP leadership tomorrow the whole of southern England would be washed away in a foaming tide of nut brown ale.

Dad rock thunders from the Odyssey sound-system: The Stones, Van Halen, Led Zep’s 'Kashmir' and, of course, Boston’s 'More Than a Feeling', the driving anthem sans pareil. The audience love it. They like their rock like they like their cars: classic, fuel-injected and avowedly macho. For all of Clarkson’s knowing winks and asides there is no smirking or irony here. They mean it, man.

As dry ice billows over the arena floor a video screen bursts into life and we see the three amigos do an arthritic 60’s spy routine in cravats and fake moustaches to the Department S theme. It ends with Jeremy punching someone and being told he has crossed a line and that he has been fired. This is pretty much the only reference in the show to the infamous 'fracas' whereby Clarkson drunkenly punched a man in the face for not getting him the right dinner.

Clarkson Hammond May 2

As a consequence Hammond and May appear on stage on motorbikes because 'the Orangutan', who hates bikes, has been fired. But don’t worry; Clarkson soon arrives, with the biggest pyrotechnic display naturally, and on a hovercraft that he cannot control properly. Older viewers will be reminded of Bernie Clifton and his wayward ostrich.

Paul Swift and his stunt team are the first feature act to emerge, delivering the sort of dazzling handbrake turns you see in a supermarket car park every Friday night. At the end Hammond reveals that the interior of the stunt-car is back to front, which sort of ruins it slightly.

There is banter. They are the uber-blokes, after all. (I’m going to include James May in that, though he exudes all the matey bonhomie of a private school choir master.) So after a few jibes about the size of Hammond’s penis, Clarkson blurts out 'I’m getting a cake made with Bert and Ernie on it!' Which doesn’t really make sense but gets a laugh anyway, as the man off the telly has done a small amount of research about local issues. Seconds later Hammond calls Clarkson 'a retard'.

Later, on explaining the design of a car he has made from a microwave, Clarkson declares 'Stephen Hawking would struggle to make this – then again Stephen Hawking would struggle to make an animal balloon', which is both edgy stuff and undeniably true. Top bantz. 'I don’t work for the BBC anymore and I can say what I want,' the Orangutan explains.

There are redeeming features to this show, though most of them fail to feature the titular three. When a blonde woman in a bacofoil outfit appears spurting fire from her sleeves at a couple of flaming Porsches, the adrenalin levels are amped up. That they leave criss-crossing tracks of liquid fire across the arena while she continues to flambé them doesn’t hurt the spectacle either.

A wall of death (dubbed the 'The Motorcycle Salad Shaker of Doom') is astoundingly impressive, especially when Hammond clambers into the cage and the cyclist whizzes around the interior, inches from his head. (Hammond: 'I smell drink on his breath'; Clarkson: 'That’s because he’s French.')

British Olympic athlete Louise Hazel appears to challenge May to a 100m dash – he’s in a car, she’s on foot. She obviously wins, even though he clearly throws the race. The lads attempt a circuit and spill over in Reliant Robins, they have a drifting contest in which naughty James May cheats.

A load of elegant, impossibly expensive cars then drift slowly into the arena like unhurried sharks and the boys expound at length about which one and why they would like to take home with them. ('Some have complained that it doesn’t have the traditional manual gearbox but...')

This is all fine and diverting. It’s when they play the lengthy pre-recorded 'challenges' on the big screen that my attention starts to wander, as I realise I am effectively watching Dave on a giant telly in an ice-rink.

If you like Top Gear, you’ll like this. It’s exactly the same, but with the trademark 'banter' ratcheted up now the reins are off them. And I’ll admit there is a lot to like about James May giving a royal wave as he drove past in a go-kart made of washing machines.

But the crowd are sluggish, the response muted. There are a lot of children here for this matinee performance of the opening weekend of a UK tour, and maybe that skews the ambience in the room. But it looks to me as if the people having the most fun in the Odyssey Arena today are the people whose faces appear on the posters outside.