It is about twenty years since I last saw Rich Hall live, at the Edinburgh festival. He has done very well for himself since and no wonder. There is a real niche in Britain for an American stand up who understands irony and has a wryly placed foot in both cultures and he has been filling that niche beautifully for a long time now. He has the one asset which is more valuable to a stand up than anything else- likeability. If you have that one basic advantage you can take risks, be as grouchy as you like, and effectively get away with murder on stage. Not that he does- he is much too clever- but he could if he needed to and there is great freedom in that. We will cut him as much slack as he needs to make a set work.
His set on a miserable, wintery, March evening in the Spa Theatre in Scarborough, a North of England town which has fallen on hard times, was quick to test the pulse of the place. A local coffee shop owner who admitted that he wasn’t selling much coffee was treated to a leading role in a partly improvised song and when someone yelled out Jimmy Saville’s name very late in the set (as they do in these parts, it still rankles) he dealt with it swiftly and honestly although I’m sure he could have done without it. A woman who laughed bizarrely throughout the evening, sometimes messing up his timing, had to be coped with. After Billy Connoly’s bad experience in the town, something Rich Hall mentioned more than once, we are clearly getting a reputation as a tough audience. It wasn’t an easy ride for him, although there were some easy targets to aim at. Sarah Palin and the republican right wing are always good for an outraged laugh over here for example, as are American gun laws and the National Rifle Association. There were a few glorious rants against both the American fast food industry, especially Kraft cheese, and our own partial culpability when we buy dirt cheap, bottom of the range, processed food and find that it has horse meat in it. He tells it like it is, even when going against the grain. It was slightly cool in the Spa Theatre but you could feel the temperature drop a little further when he dealt with phone hacking in a way that the audience weren’t sure about, but we went with it. While there is a basic warmth towards Britain running through his material it goes well beyond the saccharin platitudes we often hear when American performers come over here. Rich knows Britain well. He has taken the citizenship test (for which he watched Carry on Camping in preparation and it turned out he needed to) and he knows us in a way that most outsiders don’t, even though he might find us incomprehensible sometimes. We didn’t get off unscathed, particularly in a very clever song in the second half about the seedier side of Newcastle and Liverpool. There was also a song about hard economic times which had a neat comic punch as well as a hint of quite touching truth, not an easy thing to get right.
Rich Hall is a good bloke to spend time with. Take the chance to do just that if you can. This is a long, hard working tour with reasonably priced tickets and you won’t regret it.