Old skool all-round entertainer Ryan Hand headlines a bizarre evening at the Black Box
There's not one other comedian at Ryan Hand's first hour long show, Handwritten, at the Black Box in Belfast. Clearly factionalism still has a place in Northern Irish comedy.
Hand is definitely, defiantly, not of the Belfast comedy scene, and his audience is not a Belfast comedy audience – there are girls here, for a start. It seems a shame that nobody felt obliged to check out the competition.
First up is Holywood hunk Shane Todd, performing a short set and compering the evening. His opening gambit to the room, 'Who are you wearing tonight?' is one of the oddest questions I've ever heard at a gig. It works with this crowd, though. They don't bat an eyelid.
Later, when Hand asks the crowd, matter-of-factly, 'Anyone here been to Las Vegas?' fully a third of the crowd raise their hands. I've never felt so alone watching comedy. Todd, meanwhile, completes a truncated version of his recent Anecboats set, displaying his usual confidence and charm: banter is deployed. It's a soft opening for the evening.
Next up is the honed and proficient Darren Matthews from Newry – 'Or for any Protestants in, London-Newry'. He is an efficient laugh maker, a seasoned pro adopting the classic 'leaning on the mic-stand' pose. He's also a fine supporting comedian: polished, unthreatening and in and out without touching the sides.
Hand then leaps onto the stage in a spangly show-biz jacket. He already looks like a constellation of stars, but will he prove to be one tonight? 'I haven't got a clue what's going to happen in the next hour,' he cheerfully admits. I spot a guitar lurking in the shadows by the side of the stage, so I have an inkling. It sends a shiver through me.
What he does first, though, is point out that two of the people who bought tickets to the show have foreign names. Now, I'm fairly sure there is no malice intended – he isn't being mean to them, he just wants to know how they found out about the show – but it is an odd, awkward way to start a comedy set, and outlines a guilelessness that seems to hang over Hand the entire length of the performance.
Hand's stock in trade is the groan-inducing pun and the stage is littered with dropped clangers tonight. 'Did a gig in a hospital earlier. Had them in stitches,' is followed by 'My Harry Styles sat-nav is broken. It only goes in one direction.' You get the idea.
The audience, admittedly a partisan one, love it. There are gales of laughter as Hand nips back and forth on the stage, a ball of energy. He looks like a comedian, with his Live at the Electric haircut, Bruce Forsyth jacket and obvious eagerness to please. But his material lets him down.
A long section of the show relates to him having googled 'funny names' on the internet. ('Carrie Oakey. I hear she's very big in China.') Another part sees him showing pictures of himself as a kid. That's it. Just pictures of himself as a child. He notes at the end of it: 'I don't know what that round of applause was for... perhaps for not being as big a pansy as I was back then.'
It would be fair to say that he is not a performer who is over-burdened by the niceties of political correctness. The comedy 'Indian' accent is also misjudged.
For the final part of his act he stages a mock chat show, as his ambition is clearly to be a television presenter. In fact, he says as much. As he gathers people from the audience, Hand hands one blonde woman an inflatable life preserver. 'You're going to be Pamela Anderson,' he says, adding as an aside, 'You actually have the boobs to be Pamela Anderson'. I'm watching through my fingers at this point. It's like Alan Partridge as a holiday rep.
When he gets a man with a riding crop to ride around on the back of a man in a horse mask, the crowd lose it, but no one is laughing harder than Hand. He finishes, as I knew he would – this old skool all-round entertainer – with a song. The guitar is pressed into service. The song is about Rory Mcllroy. The next song is a rap, and the David Brent impression is completed when Hand forgets the words half way through.
It's hard to dislike Ryan Hand. He clearly means well. He wants you to have a good time and he will do anything he can to ensure that that happens even, I suspect, if it means physical harm to his person. But there's no idea here, no theme, no structure and, beyond the Christmas cracker jokes, no real material.
Ultimately he needs to sit down and have a think about why he's doing this. Does he want to be famous, or does he want to be good?