Al Murray, Pub Landlord

Laugh with him or at him, all that matters is that you laugh

Like Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett before him, Al Murray’s absurdly xenophobic Pub Landlord straddles the fine line between satirising the more knuckle-headed members of British society and appealing to those same people.

At some points during tonight’s packed-out Belfast Waterfront show, it’s hard to tell if the audience is laughing at the Landlord or with him – but the important thing is they’re laughing. Comedy is either funny or it isn’t, and Al Murray is very, very funny indeed.

Taking the stage on a motorised bar, and sporting his character’s trademark maroon blazer, white shirt and tucked-in tie, shaven-headed Murray gets straight down to business, abusing the crowd.

He starts with a man named John, who works in a dole office (‘Job for life round here!’), then Danny, 16, has a pint dribbled tauntingly over his head for being two years underage. Next, it’s Derek, who has made the mistake of wearing a pink shirt. It goes on like this for a good half-hour, with Murray working his way through the first five or six rows.

Everyone has a ‘beautiful British name’ – one of the Landlord’s catchphrases – until, that is, Murray arrives at Claude, a swimming teacher. The name and the profession are easy targets, and, to make matters more excruciating for the hapless punter, Murray confiscates Claude’s mobile phone, which is being used to record the gig.

No one is quite sure if it’s a stunt or not, but when the funnyman disappears into the wings and hands the offending device to a roadie, presumably to be returned at the end of the night, it’s clear this is one comic who values DVD sales over YouTube views. Technically, I’m pretty sure this is theft, but it is Murray’s pub, and his rules.

Once things have settled down the comedian gets stuck into his anti-German, anti-French, anti-Australian, anti-women, anti-students, anti-squirrels – yes, squirrels – schtick. Performing in front of a 30-foot-wide Union Flag – a brave move in this city, and one that passes with surprisingly few boos – no target is out of bounds.

It’s a riotous, politically incorrect send-up of Little England, but there is a certain amount of pathos, too, if you listen carefully between the gags. In muttered asides about his sexual orientation and his relationship with his father, the Landlord reveals himself to be a sad, lonely, insecure borderline alcoholic – and he is always the butt of the joke.

If you can handle the audience-baiting banter, this is a fantastically entertaining night out, well worth catching the next time Murray comes to town (he played two nights in Belfast in 2009). The 42-year-old may have dipped his toes into TV sketch work with last year’s underrated Multiple Personality Disorder series, but live performances remain his forte.

Sure, the Landlord stuff is a bit played-out these days – the character debuted in 1994 – but with 1,800 punters laughing all the way to the merchandise stall, Murray’s glass remains very much half full.