I didn’t know much about John Bishop before going to see this curious little gig in Northampton’s Royal Theatre – yes the Royal, that charming Victorian powerhouse of culture and tradition, that seats a fraction of the larger Derngate auditorium – apart from the fact that he’s from Liverpool, has only relatively recently turned to comedy as a career, and has an accent the spitting image (if you can apply that phrase to sound as well as vision) of my late father-in-law’s. We’ve seen him a couple of times on telly and he seemed a good laugh, and I was very intrigued and excited by the fact that the gig would be so up close and personal, as he tries out new material for his arena tour later in the year. I associate “arena” with the performer being miles away so that you can only see them on the thoughtfully provided TV screens scattered about the place. But in the Royal, we would be in Row C of the stalls and he would be a mere few feet away. That’s what I call live entertainment.
Shows in the Royal always – ALWAYS – start at 7.45pm. It’s a tradition. If there’s anything on at the Derngate it will begin at 7.30 or 8.00; and the same goes for the Underground unless it’s the Screaming Blue Murder, which always starts at 8.15. It’s a timing system that runs like clockwork. So I was really surprised to see that John Bishop was due to start at 8pm. Half believing it was a printing error on the tickets, we arrived in good time just in case it really was a 7.45 kick-off. The bar was very busy – unsurprisingly, as every seat in the Royal had been sold, which I believe is a first since we’ve been going there. If we wanted to sit down with our pre-comedy Cab Sav (which we did), the only choice was to sit on the plastic children’s chairs at the bottom of the stairs, that are about a foot high and wide enough for one buttock. We weren’t alone. I expect a number of people had bad backs on Saturday morning.
Then came the tannoy announcement – apologies, but John Bishop is running late. Late? Unthinkable! He’d already had a quarter of an hour’s grace by being on at 8 and not 7.45. But no, late he would be, and rather like waiting at some busy arrivals’ terminal, we were told that he was now due to land at 8.45pm. The announcement came a few times, and every time, just like at an airport, the conversation would all suddenly hush as we listened for the longed-for confirmation that our flight had finally arrived. Maybe fog at Gatwick was to blame; cue for another Cab Sav anyway. By the time Mr Bishop would eventually come on stage, sweating with apologies and panting with embarrassment, we’d all had a skinful. That’s not a bad thing – sometimes comedy can use a bit of extra help if it’s not that great in the first place. Of course, Mr Bishop needs no such help.
A downside though is that some people can get a little out of hand with the extra lubrication. No sooner had Mr B come on stage and started his apologies then the people in front of me, whose jawlines were firmly set in that “I’m not going to laugh at him” mode, started having a go at him about something he said last time he visited Northampton. “Are you still mad that Northampton Town beat Liverpool in the Carling Cup in 2010”, one guy challenged him, to a loud intake of breath and an “oooh” from everyone else. Mr B looked as though he couldn’t believe his ears. “To be honest, I’ve moved on” was his wonderfully deflating reply. But the group in front kept on trying to have little digs at him, which was, in all fairness, bloody rude and downright annoying.
As Mr B said, usually the format is that he comes on and does an hour or so’s worth of material and then there’d be some questions and answers at the end. However, a number of people in the audience wouldn’t let him get on with his act until they’d got some questions in and their presence acknowledged. Most popular was for him to tell us about his attitude to the England Football Team’s “performance” (as I suppose you might call it) in the World Cup. Mr B knew that he had lost the upper hand – being late put him at a slight disadvantage there – so he gave in and answered some questions. Thus we had a comedy sandwich, with Q&A’s as the bit of bread either side.
He says he needs these try-out shows to see if the material he’s got milling around inside his head is funny or not. I suppose that must be true, otherwise why would he break away from a family weekend at Glastonbury, allowing insufficient time to get to Northampton (he believed the Sat Nav, apparently – schoolboy error), offer to buy everyone in the audience a drink after the show to apologise for being late, and then drive all the way back to Glastonbury, just to do an hour or so’s comedy to a maximum of 500 people at just £15 a ticket. It’s hardly a cash cow, is it?
Well, just to let both you and him know, every scenario he discussed, every mental picture he painted, every joke he told (actually there was just the one) was comedy gold. Flights featured quite a lot in his material – both travelling in the Ryanair learjet to do a gig in Ireland, and his experiences of travelling First Class on Emirates. He considers the reasons why people might vote UKIP (if you voted UKIP you might be asked to explain yourself) and confesses to why he too might vote the same way. He ponders on the delights of having teenage sons, and how sharing a friendly tequila with a mate got out of hand. And then there was his joke – which involved a taxi and a Geordie lass. Can’t remember laughing harder or louder at a simple joke, ever.
Mr B has a wonderfully relaxed, gentle style of delivery that reassures you with his confidence but that can also snap into quite an aggressive punch line if needed. A naturally funny, charismatic performer, we’d both happily see him again any time. He’s coming back to the R&D in September for another try-out show, and you might sneak a last minute seat if you’re lucky. Superbly funny.
P.S. According to the Northampton Chronicle, the bar bill for the free post-show drinks came in at around £1000. To be honest, Mrs Chrisparkle and I couldn’t bring ourselves to take advantage of his kindness – he’d already paid us back handsomely in comedy currency. Still, shows what a nice guy he is.