Comedy: Heaven knows I'm miserable now

No longer bounding on stage calling 'Hiya', Sean Hughes has taken to exploring the darkness of human life, influenced more by Beckett than Ben Elton

The death of a close friend is not the usual stuff of a knockabout stand- up comedian. Then again, Sean Hughes is a not the usual knockabout stand- up comedian. Ever since he burst onto the scene, winning the Perrier Award from nowhere in 1990 with his show about bedsit angst, "A One Night Stand", he has majored on doom and gloom. Not for nothing are his idols those masters of miserablism, Morrissey and Samuel Beckett.

In Alibis for Life, his latest live show, he takes things several stages further; a black box sits centre stage, giving out the sound of human crying. According to Hughes, it is a repository for all those whose relationships have foundered. Parts of the show go by such titles as "Disharmony" and "Cynical Home Truths".

His audiences, perhaps expecting the comedian who used to make cute gags about pets and sing wacky duets with a spider on his deconstructionist C4 sitcom, Sean's Show, have sometimes been taken aback by the darkness visible in this new act (a blackness reflected in The Detainees, his recently published novel, which centres on the bitter and violent falling-out of two former school contemporaries).

"People are shocked by my new stuff. They say, 'What's happened to Sean Hughes? What's his problem? He's gone sick.' They still expect me to go 'Hiya'," he has revealed. "But that image sticks in my throat. My show is extremely dark now. I've got darker. Melody Maker said about me: 'If the culture of despair means anything, here's the master of it'. I thought that was a brilliant review. The darker, the better.

"I'm not making apologies for being serious anymore. That's the way forward. I sound like the grand old master of comedy, but while younger acts are preparing their five-minute acts for television, I've got a responsibility to dig deeper. I've dropped all that stuff about cats and dogs. Anybody could do that. I feel I have to do stuff that nobody else will touch."

His lost-soul stage persona certainly wins over audiences; women, in particular, come out of his shows wanting to mother him. "I expect women like him because of his vulnerability," surmises Harry Thompson, Hughes's producer on BBC2's Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

For his part, Hughes is pleased that his audience appears to have matured at the same rate as he has. "It's not a load of 15-year-old girls sitting in the front row and smiling at me anymore," he has said, with evident relief. "What could I say to them? 'How much pocket money do you get?' "

Sean Hughes' 'Alibis for Life' tour: Fairfield Halls, Croydon (0181- 688 9291) 12 Oct, Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage (01438 766 866) 14 Oct; Orchard Theatre, Dartford (01322 220 000) 15 Oct

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