Preview: Life Becomes Noises

Richard Smirke talks to comedian Sean Hughes about his latest very personal and poignant show that aims to lift the soul

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By his own admission Sean Hughes’s latest comedy show is something of a hard sell. Inspired by the death of his father and exploring such crowd-pleasing themes as mortality, terminal illness and the absurdities of aging, the aptly named Life Becomes Noises doesn’t immediately jump off the page as a laugh-a-minute gag-fest.

“Death is not something that people tend to talk about in comedy,” agrees the ever likeable Hughes. He jokingly admits that for the majority of people the initial reaction is likely to be: “A show about his father dying? I’m not seeing that shit. I want a good night out.”

Longstanding fans of the Irish comic need not worry, however. The critical consensus is that Life Becomes Noises is one of the most accomplished shows in Hughes’s colourful 25-year career, with its mix of sardonic wit, expertly crafted gags and beautifully observed pathos winning gushing plaudits since premiering at last year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Audience responses have been similarly effusive, says the 48-year-old stand-up, who became the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award in 1990. Following a recent show in Derby (“one of the weirdest places ever”) he received a tweet that said: “I laughed so much at your show considering I was sad all the way through.”

Several weeks later, the memory still pleases him.

“It’s beautiful when people say things like that. It’s so much better than just going: ‘Oh, that was very funny,’” recalls Hughes, who proudly calls the 90-minute routine “the best show that I have ever done – and I don’t bullshit people”.

“It goes beyond funny. It’s not like I’m taking myself really seriously and doing a sombre show about death. It’s a really funny show about death. But for people who buy into it, it affects them and that’s a beautiful experience.

“When I started writing Life Becomes Noises the two pillars of the show were that, first and foremost, it had to be uplifting. The other thing was no sentimentality. It isn’t that Hollywood version of: ‘My dad was great. I loved him and I really miss him.’ It was a difficult relationship, but you tend to look for the positives rather than the negatives in the relationship.”

Born in London in 1965, but raised in Dublin, Hughes returned to the city of his birth in his late teens to pursue a career in comedy, much to the disappointment of his unsupportive family. Following his Perrier triumph, he achieved crossover fame with 1990s cult sitcom Sean’s Show. His memorable six year run as a captain on Never Mind The Buzzcocks brought the comic mainstream recognition, although he quit the show in 2002 to pursue other projects.

“It wasn’t a bad programme, but it’s not what I want to be remembered for,” says Hughes, who also took an extended break from performing stand-up around the same time.

“I stopped doing stand-up because I felt that I didn’t really have much to say,” he explains today. “I got successful very early on so you slightly run out of life experience. Another reason why I stopped was that I had ideas above my station, which I think is always a good thing. I wanted to write novels. The ideas that I was peddling you couldn’t really communicate in stand-up.”

Having exorcised his literature ambitions with two books and returned to comedy with 2007’s The Right Side Of Wrong tour, he’s been a regular presence on the circuit ever since.

“I’ve been really lucky and fortunate to be able to do lots of other things, but I was in denial for a long time – I’m just a clown,” he says with a smile. “Here’s me going: ‘Life Becomes Noises is a really beautiful, earnest and intelligent show.’ But if you look at the photos of me performing, I’m just pulling faces. I used to think: ‘I’m much better than that.’ But no. I’m basically a face-puller.”

Life Becomes Noises, The Lowry, Salford, 12 November, and Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, 13 November

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