Little did I know, gentle reader, that as I was battling with the northbound M1 traffic yesterday evening and wondering whether I would get home in time to meet Mrs Chrisparkle, have something to eat and then go out together to see Hal Cruttenden at the Royal, that Mr Cruttenden was having precisely the same thoughts. Well, maybe not the bit about meeting Mrs C and me for a bite to eat, but definitely struggling to get to the theatre in time for his 7.45pm Tough Luvvie show. Mrs C and I made it on the stroke of 7.45. Mr Cruttenden beat us by a few minutes apparently. How do I know this? Because his account of his panicky journey, then discovering there was nowhere to park, was how he introduced his show. Those anxious worries about Not Making An Important Appointment On Time set the tone for the evening; an extremely candid, personal and honest two and a half hours summation of what makes Mr Cruttenden tick. Mind you, if had been late he could have bought us all a pint like John Bishop did.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ve actually seen Hal Cruttenden once before on the stage of the Derngate, when he was – I think – supporting Julian Clary (so to speak). I could be wrong about for whom he was warming up, it was before I started blogging. But I remember we both enjoyed him and the insight into his world – a camp straight man married to a woman from Northern Ireland with a fearsome voice. We’ve not seen any of his interim TV appearances so I was looking forward to seeing how he would carry an entire show by himself.
Hugely better than I could have expected, as it happens. He has a very chatty and welcoming style that makes you feel like you’re just sitting in his front room after a lovely meal, passing round the port and the cognac whilst he holds court; the perfect dinner party host, all relaxed bonhomie and with a funny story about every possible subject. Whilst it seems as though he is jumping around from topic to topic as things occur to him, I actually think it was all jolly cleverly planned and prepared – but you couldn’t tell the join between the scripted bits and the off-the-cuff dealing with whatever the audience threw at him.
We were indeed an eclectic bunch in the Royal last night, that included a Royal Protection officer, a “Plastic Paddy”, an acutely embarrassed young couple in the front row and a woman recovering from a Bone Marrow transplant who didn’t so much heckle as simply engage too loudly with the proceedings. Mr Cruttenden can bat these unusual oddballs into the long grass with ease, but some of them were quite resilient in their determination to play a part in the show. One response of his I particularly liked when the interrupting woman started up a new conversation was “I’m actually quite busy at the moment…” There was also an actor (with the stress on the final syllable) who had trained at Bristol Old Vic (Mr Cruttenden clearly rather envious of this reputable Alma Mater) and who I recognised as being a friend of a friend of a friend. It gave Mr Cruttenden the opportunity to do a hilariously silly sequence about how stage schools don’t prepare you for the reality of Life In Showbiz.
Despite the continual dipping in and out of conversation with various members of the audience, there were loads and I mean really loads of great material here. Mr Cruttenden’s main strength is the contrast between his “butter wouldn’t melt” appearance and accent, and the not always so sweet content of the language that he uses and the situation he’s in. He’s unbeatable when doing a routine where a middle class person (i.e. him) is suddenly plonked into an alien working class environment, such as letting loose a tirade of foul mouthed abuse at a football referee, then turning to his friend on the terraces and simpering “so sorry about the language, Giles”. We loved his “gay football chanting” sequence – again it’s the juxtaposition between the roughty-toughty world of football and the unexpected and inappropriate chants of its less aggressive supporters.
There are very many outstanding sequences of comic fantasy that had us in hysterics. We loved the extension of that common phenomenon where parents suddenly become very religious when the local C of E school gets great Ofsted reports, and what could happen if it was an ISIL school; he speculated on a comprehensive school version of Hogwarts; he looked back at the part the English played in the Scottish referendum; he admitted what you really shouldn’t say to a returning Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran who admires your work as a comic; and we heard the refined young Hal’s reaction to seeing his first QPR game. And so very much more besides.
Most of all, I love the way Mr Cruttenden sends himself up, playing on his sometimes precarious camp/straight balance, ridiculing his own middle class lifestyle and offering us just that touch of vanity that we can all recognise in ourselves – beautifully highlighted in his final story about protecting a lone female traveller on the tube.
The two and a half hours flew by. His tour continues, with many dates still to play before Christmas. We found him both refreshingly self-deprecating and completely hysterical with his class-based routines and asides. Highly recommended!