Times Review of the Headmaster's Son

February 20, 2009
Richard Herring at Leicester Square Theatre, W1
Dominic Maxwell

To comedy fans, Richard Herring is one of our most interesting performers. Hell, in his heyday as the cuddlier half of Lee and Herring, he even presented Top of the Pops once. But to the people of Cheddar in Somerset, he is still the younger son of T. K. Herring — the headmaster of the local school.

Now he wants to contrast his shagabout adult self with the swotty young man who played in a brass band and took his books to school in a briefcase. “It’s comedy gold!” he says, a typical mix of self-aggrandisement and self-deprecation, as he unveils his gauche yet untarnished teenage self.

It is, at least for its fast-thinking first half, as glorious as anything Herring has done. He hits the ground running with an inspired and abrasive routine about Jesus’s ascension to Heaven, before presenting then testing a flurry of ideas about the child being the father of the man. He gives us the boy who was more popular than him, his first girlfriend, his lewd lustings for 18-year-olds — not much has changed, he assures us — and as much info about his early onanism as even the most crazed stalker could need. He’s affectionate yet sharp, mocking his mixture of self-pity and arrogance, mocking his own routine as he confuses his own past with events from Grange Hill, debasing himself hilariously so that we give a happy shudder at our own adolescent pretensions.

The laughs thin out in the second half of this 70-minute show, first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe. First, he’s operating from a false premise — as he ’fesses up to at the end. Herring’s early suggestion that he’s “a bit of a f***-up” as an adult comes across as the false modesty of a fairly successful man — no more than a spur to reel back to happy or humiliating memories. So his trademark one-man dialogue, this time with his idealistic younger self, has some glorious moments and yet doesn’t quite stick, because the older Herring doesn’t need forgiveneness from the younger one, who, as it turns out, didn’t have such a bad time anyway.

Second, Herring is too hasty. His furious welter of self-satirising ideas means that he’s never dull. But his pace can also act as a guard against letting his audience in, as if he’s trying to out-talk some invisible candy-striped cane poised to yank him off the stage.

Stand-up at its best gives the audience the illusion that they’re involved in a dialogue. And The Headmaster’s Son, particularly in its self-therapeutic closing stages, feels like a monologue. Herring’s fast-talking exterior may suggest brittle confidence. But actually he should trust even more in his lavish ability to amuse.

Box office: 0844 8472475, to Feb 28, then touring to Apr 25. www.richardherring.com