Sean Hughes

The Irish comedian whittles out the jokes in his father's demise, and entrances the Black Box with his 'energic and involving style'

Death might not be the first topic that springs to mind when attempting to provoke the biggest belly-laughs, but that hasn’t stopped Irish comedian Sean Hughes from basing his new show, Life Becomes Noise, entirely around the theme.

After losing his father to cancer, it's a subject that is close to home for Hughes. The stage in the Black Box, Belfast features a hospital bed, a reconstruction of the Hughes family mantelpiece, and a few other props. It feels as if Life Becomes Noise is being played out entirely within Hughes’ mind, as he wanders from topic to topic in both a metaphorical and a literal sense.

Kicking off with an attempt to re-create the Grand National, Hughes races through the audience in full jockey’s uniform and hits the ground running. He rarely pauses for breath thereafter, as he bombards the audience with insights and observations, whimsical flights of fancy, and hard-hitting personal anecdotes.

Life Becomes Noise doesn’t quite have a narrative structure, but, given Hughes’ approach to comedy, it doesn’t really need one. Instead, we are told straight off the bat that we’re going to be taking a long, hard look at death, and immediately afterwards we’re right in the thick of things.

There follows touches of audience participation, puppetery, costume changes, slow dancing and Rage Against the Machine, all explored and delivered in Hughes’ energetic and involving style.

Along the way, we consider what it’s like to lose someone whom we might love, and go through a range of emotions, just as Hughes did during his father's demise. It’s vital that such a show walks the line between making us laugh and making us cry (and think), and Hughes wisely avoids any detours into out and out sentimentality. Every story is wrapped up, very confidently, in a gag.

If there’s any fault to be found, it surely comes in Hughes’ pacing. Mortality is a big topic, and Hughes crams an awful lot into this show, spitting out his thoughts with a rabid intensity at times. There’s rarely any pause for reflection, and sometimes it feels as though Hughes has so much to say that his urgency to say it causes him to tear through his material.

So, rather than coming across like an organic discourse between performer and audience, occasionally Life Becomes Noise has a slightly more didactic feel, with Hughes already having formed his opinion about death and prepared to deliver his findings on the subject to an empty room, if necessary.

Of course, he acknowledges his audience, and gets them in on the act, as well as throwing in a few choice observations about the fraught political situation in Belfast. But, all the while, he never strays from the overall theme, occasionally staring right through the audience with an icy intensity.

If there is a comparison to be made in this particular brand of intelligent comedy, it is certainly with the late Bill Hicks. But whereas Hicks’ routines felt like sermons – with Hicks cast in the role of firebrand preacher – Hughes can only go so far, continually holding back from offering any answers or solutions.

We learn that watching someone die from cancer is a difficult thing, and little else. But then Hughes is no philosopher. He doesn't attempt to find answers in death, he finds jokes. And stand-up show like this is, in the end, really all about the laughs.

Out To Lunch 2013 continues until January 27.