Sean's a bit of a dark horse

"Relationships are like grand prix races," goes a line in Sean Hughes's new stand-up show, Alibis For Life. "They're brilliant at the start, then you just hang around hoping that something exciting is going to happen."

It's a typical line from a brilliantly funny show in which the main theme is relationships, or to be more accurate the impossibility of them. Hughes is 31 and although he's been mining the thirtysomething bachelorhood theme for a while now, he suddenly finds himself unwittingly in very fashionable territory. Following the success of the paperback of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, newspapers have been filled with articles of the "Why it's okay to be single in your thirties" variety. But whereas Fielding is ultimately a romantic, Hughes, who says he finds commitment "very hard work", takes a more cynical view, to the extent that someone told him recently that if he ever got married, he'd be selling out.

"I think this is the first generation where if you're single in your thirties you're not obviously gay," he says. "I don't want to be seen as saying relationships don't work. All I'm saying is that if they don't, get out of them. People have written to me saying that after they saw my show they stopped seeing their boyfriend or girlfriend because they realised they were living a lie. I'm not having a go at happy couples, I'm having a go at couples who are living that lie."

Hughes has come a long way from jokes about wobbly chairs and Morrissey, the kind of stuff which he was doing on Sean's Show a few years ago. His new show, which he'll be taking around the country later in the year, features a much darker vein of humour and moves on from relationships to take in politics and religion and even a moving tribute to his friend the journalist Gavin Hills, who died earlier this year. "The darkest hour and a half's comedy on the Fringe" is how the local listings magazine described it.

But if his show is dark, then Hughes's debut novel, The Detainees, published a week on Monday, can only be described as black. If I tell you that the book includes a scene in which a man rapes a woman and in the course of doing so takes a phonecall telling him that his mother has died, I think you'll get the picture. In other words, it's not the usual kind of gagfest you might expect from a comedian writing a novel. It's powerful stuff nonetheless. His publishers are hyping him as the "new writer stalking the ravaged housing estates of outer Dublin" and he's preparing for the inevitable critical backlash.

Not that he can't take criticism. He told me about a friend of his who'd been to see his show a few nights previously. "And on the way out he heard someone saying, `He whinges a lot, doesn't he?'" He laughed. "I've no problem with that at all," he said.

Edinburgh reviews, Real Life, page 15

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