Dara O'Briain, Craic Dealer – review
In 'Craic Dealer', Dara O'Briain is as smart and generous as ever, but the big bright bear of stand-up isn't quite himself
I've always thought of Dara O'Briain as like a big bear, all friendly and playful and marauding. The last time we saw him on the Hammersmith Apollo stage was 2010. It was the big finalé to his awesome This Is the Show, and that time he was dancing bear, doing salsa with Jimmi Mistri (it was a call-back) with a big grin on his face. And quite right too, as that show was energised and fun, not to mention extremely funny, and the big finish, unlike so many in stand-up, didn't feel contrived. However, the O'Briain that walks out tonight is more like just-come-out-of-hibernation bear – oddly subdued and a bit eye-rubby.
Except he hasn't been hibernating, he's been touring since May, so some weariness is to be expected, although I suspect another type of fatigue is at play (see below). Craic Dealer suffers a little as a result, never finding its way out from the shadow of This Is the Show (despite the infinitesimally better title). However, he has such vast reserves of charisma and anecdote-telling that there is laughter for virtually the whole two-hour show, which is quite a feat.
Tonight he is funniest when he has something to kick against – whether it's an audience member he intuits is lying to him, or a comprehensive takedown of TV psychic Sally Morgan. There are also strong sections on how girls grow up quicker than boys, alternative nativity plays, and his TV appearance with Brian Cox that drew complaints from viewers.
He has the tricky task of pulling together a show that pleases two different types of fan – his science geek fans and those who've seen him on Mock the Week a few times – and he treads that line adroitly (for a big man). It's quite bitty and probably lacks a few longer sections for everyone to get their teeth into, but I laugh a lot, the crowd laughs a lot, things have gone well.
So this is a consolidatory show for O'Briain rather than one that moves him forward. Natural authority, words per minute, charm – check, check, check.
However I keep going back to the fact that he's not quite himself. He's not as care-free as usual, and he seems overly self-conscious of his own tropes, as if he knows why people have come to see him but he's a bit bored of it himself. A section of audience interaction is undermined because of how he flags it up beforehand, pointing out that the front row looks "desperate" to get the O'Briain treatment and be involved in show. Similarly, his dismissiveness of the idea of an "encore" – which is understandable – is heavy-handed and takes some of the oomph out of the ending. O'Briain's not letting himself go, which makes it hard for us to. He's in the "calculation phase", to borrow from Simon Munnery.
His ability to MC a room and make a big venue feel small is legendary and he is about the best there is at it. It's a far higher-risk strategy than constructing robust material, and tonight it works well enough, but the pay-offs that we spend five minutes building up to aren't always strong, particularly the one on what you would say if you caught a burglar in your house. The trademark O'Briain ending where he re-introduces the people he's spoken to and makes them the star of the show, again, works well enough but feels a little tired.
O'Briain has set such high standards for himself that "works well enough" equates to something a little disappointing. On this occasion, the net result is still enjoyable, but he looks like a man who's doing what is expected of him by his audience but isn't stimulated by it himself, and it might take a break or a change of course before we see him in full flow again.
Review written by Paul Fleckney