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Reviews / Review: Steel a cut above his peers

Mark Steel in town on Wednesday - Photo: Neil Riddell/ShetNews

Our very own isles have had it pretty good when it comes to comedy recently, writes Shetland News reviewer Chris Cope.

Scattergun A-lister Ross Noble took his peculiar take on the world to Lerwick in September, whilst Irishman Dylan Moran, wine in hand, brought wistful wit to the same Mareel stage earlier this month.

English writer and comic Mark Steel may not quite exude the same levels of star quality of those two laugh-mongers, but his visit to Lerwick on Wednesday night proved to be a cut above his peers.

His Mark Steel’s in Town show – which clocked in at around two and a half hours – was rooted in his BBC Radio 4 series of the same name, which sees the 54-year-old hit the road to poke fun at rural towns across Britain.

Shetland is, by its intrinsic nature, fertile ground for gentle mockery and to the evening’s benefit, Steel had no qualms about taking good-natured potshots at the isles’ locale, culture and current affairs.

The opening gambit saw Steel, whose wit was as quick as the post-Posers rush to the Tattie Shop, take box clever jabs at Shetland – and da toon’s – rurality and situation.

“Lerwick is a marvellous example of diversity” he quipped in a passage about the benefits of immigration, having gone exploring earlier in the day, whilst trains – “what are they? Boats on land?”

It was with his prolonged section about the rest of the UK however – tried and tested on tour previously – where Steel really pushed down on the accelerator.

Towns and cities were used as a launchpad for amusing tales; there was disbelieved talk of a homemade wooden spoon shop in London and watching the World Cup in a Ghanian pub, whilst the Englishman’s comic timing, storytelling and theatrical pizzazz excelled.

Steel, a notable left-winger, was keen to wade knee-deep into politics and his thoughts on the ‘right’, nationalism and the Scottish independence referendum managed not to divide – instead it conquered the crowd into convulsing with serious chuckles.

The second half of the show saw the comic focus on the foibles of Lerwick, and Shetland as a whole, and he came ready with slides, reference books, pages of notes and the current copy of the Shetland Times – particularly the rambling letters pages – in his arsenal.

Steel’s observational comedy was superb as he reflected on his visit to the isles, with the seemingly pedestrianised Commercial Street punctuated by intrusive cars – “do they drive into the shops as well?” – whilst his hairy, noisy flight north to Sumburgh was more akin to a ride in a spluttering Spitfire in disguise. “Try flying to Fair Isle” an audience member keenly retorted.

But it was with the comedian’s spirited foray into topical matters that the second half reached a tantalising boiling point.

He took joy in pointing out the ironic nature of the isles’ recent Althing debate, which raised the notion that Lerwick is “too big for its boots” – “it’s not like it’s Tokyo”, he said – whilst Steel was confused by the public’s penchant for moaning about Mareel; they just must not like being given things, he concluded.

The mere whisper of the Viking Energy wind farm proposals elicited wry smiles and a chorus of anticipatory ‘ooos’ across the Mareel auditorium, and so did South Mainland Up Helly Aa jarl Lesley Simpson, the fire festival’s first female guizer jarl.

Steel, of course, took delight in referring to the criticism of the Lerwick Up Helly Aa’s tradition of not having women in squads – suggesting that the festival was stuck in the 1800s when it comes to equality – and the fact that this was a neutral outsider reflecting on the controversial issue perhaps made the point even sorer to swallow for any onlooking committee members.

It was clear, however, that despite the barbed topics, the near sold-out audience was joined as a whole in their admiration for Steel’s talents. ‘It was constant chuckling’, a couple of gig-goers opined.

Come the end of the night, the comic stated that he was proud to have now performed the “most northerly show in Britain”.

“You could have gone to Unst”, a sharp-witted audience member responded, but you get the feeling that judging by his prolific output and whirring mind, even that small island could create hours of material for Steel.

Noble, Moran and co. may be bigger names, but it seems Steel may have given Shetland one of its finest stand-up shows of recent years.

And behind the laughs, contemplative and affectionate themes emerged during the evening, such as how Shetland is keeping its identity whilst the rest of the UK becomes homogenised.

It was through this that despite all the knocks, nods to parochialism and allegations of being…well, a bit backwards, you still somehow felt a little bit proud of our little islands. Maybe our town isn’t quite so bad after all.