Steve Hall: Zebra

Thu 6th – Sun 30th August 2015

reviews

Poppy McLean

at 00:25 on 20th Aug 2015

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Steve Hall has a tremendous way with words. Whether ridiculing a greedy nephew, the British attitude towards royalty or what can only be described as an internet artist’s ‘impressionistic’ take on a photo of his baby daughter, the comedian can construct the perfect - usually bombastic - phrase to guarantee laughs from his audience.

In Zebra he takes full advantage of this ability, transforming even fairly unexciting stories and observations into admirably crafted comic scenes. Some were definitely less successful than others, and probably could have been done without (one concerning a duck falling accidentally into some dog poo springs to mind) but, generally speaking, the crowd responded easily to the comedian’s memorably-phrased prompts, chuckling frequently, if not constantly, throughout the show.

Smooth, forceful delivery was the other key weapon in Hall’s comedic armoury: his stand-up experience was put to good use (after a slow start, admittedly) in the confidently rhythmic flow of his language, which paired well with his superb moments of soapbox-esque ranting, incorporated prudently, it seemed, into the majority of his anecdotes.

There were only a few occasions where this kind of material came off less well, when the forceful chastising threatened to overpower the comedy, and the impression was suddenly one of the audience being lectured; it may be that a larger crowd’s mass and volume would solve these occasional hiccups by removing the impression of a quieter audience cowed before the comic’s fulminations.

This sort of mocking material was, as I say, Hall’s strongest suit, and one at which he is undoubtedly skilled. Therefore what in my opinion was the least natural part of the performance was the intensely personal – even vulnerable – side which the comedian seemed anxious to incorporate into the show. For me, at least, the jump from confident and compelling derision to earnest confessions about personal struggles with anxiety and child-raising was fairly abrupt: it’s a big leap from the soapbox to the AA chair.

I cannot be sure of speaking on behalf of all my fellow spectators, but there certainly did seem to be a tangible awkwardness surrounding our joint reaction to the various baby photos revealed throughout the show, an uncertainty of how to react beyond a polite “mmm”. The uneasiness of this dichotomy was perhaps highlighted by Hall’s blatant discomfort referring to his beloved daughter as a “pig” in a more light-hearted moment. That said, the show’s conclusion hinges on an inspired combination of familial subject matter and hilarious, adeptly articulated mockery.

Steve Hall’s Zebra is undoubtedly an entertaining show, delivered competently by a highly skilled wordsmith with a good nose for the comic. If he can make his self-characterisation as smooth as his script, it could become really a very entertaining show indeed.

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Fergus Morgan

at 13:02 on 20th Aug 2015

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Steve Hall, by his own admission, is an out-of-form stand-up-comedian. Having taken a break from several years since his last show at the Fringe, during which he has written extensively for TV – notably Russell Howard’s Good News – and undertaken the challenge of fatherhood, he has now returned with his new show Zebra. As he admits in one of many refreshingly candid moments, he is still “finding his feet again”.

Hall’s rustiness is reflected in his comedy. His material is strong, his punchlines emphatic, his diatribes verbose and entertaining, but all is delivered at pace with a forced self-assurance, an affected bravado. Hall settles into his set as it progresses, and his comic flair is allowed a freer reign as his confidence grows, but he is never quite able to shake this first impression. One can sense a whispering anxiety throughout, and although Hall’s confession is endearing, it does not go far in assuaging the audience’s slight trepidation.

Make no mistake, Hall (a taller, scruffier Steve Carrell) is a talented comedian and his routines show flashes of brilliance. His set is highly personal; with the aid of blown-up photographs, he talks at length about his family, but this only occasionally lapses into self-indulgence. His tentatively avant-garde declaration that his young nephew “is simply a c**t”, for example, begins an entertaining routine about the realities of parenthood, and the awkward situations that arise when confronted with poor parenting from others.

Hall’s skill as a writer is evident throughout. Each routine, and the entire set in fact, is remarkably well crafted. Returning to recurring themes regularly, delaying punchlines until the opportune moment, and delivering wordy rants on a variety of bugbears, Hall is clearly a naturally funny chap.

In truth, though, despite frequent chuckles and the occasional outburst of hearty laughter from the audience, Hall never has them rolling in the aisles. He is not helped by performing in “the world’s shittiest hotel room”, a cavernous carpeted room that puts one more in mind of corporate conferences than comedy, but it is his lack of recent Fringe experience that is mostly to blame.

Edinburgh, with its endless competition and frequently sparse audiences, is a hard place to regain the sure-footed comic delivery that Hall’s writing merits. A funny stand-up, but one undoubtedly not in best form.

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