Before he took to the stage, Tommy Tiernan took in some shows around Edinburgh. What struck him, whether the show was good or bad, was the humility and generosity of the acts. There is, he notices, an unwritten pact between performers and spectators, where those onstage offer themselves and their carefully cultivated performances with the sole purpose of pleasing strangers. There are a lot of presuppositions built into this conventional audience/performer dynamic, chief among them that what is presented can be never truly spontaneous – any improvisation or ad-libbing being part of a wider, rehearsed framework. The hour or so of Tiernan’s show, essentially, is the Irishman trying to construct a performance without any of these conventions.
The fire might not catch every time, but prepare yourself for when it does.
He is intensely vulnerable from the moment he steps onstage. The opening minutes are delivered with Tiernan at ninety degrees to the audience, head bowed, bent forward on one knee, with an arm arching back to the mic stand. He wants and is desperate to see, he tells us, if there is an innate capacity for performance in him, with honed and refined material of the past left outside the door. Over the next hour, he digresses, goes off on tangents, screams, is lost for words, whispers, and delivers a performance of startling bravery and sincerity. The whole show is a dedication to spontaneity, with the results, at times, nothing short of magical.
It can be uncomfortable to watch someone expose themselves so honestly – and he acknowledges this, on more than one occasion breaking off, mid-thought, to address the elephant in the room. However, it is a comedy show after all and there are jokes and memorable one-liners (he remains one of the few comics who can get a laugh using just his eyes). But the laughs are mainly cathartic, a breath of fresh air to mark the end of one train of thought before the progression to the next.
He goes off on dizzying tangents of folk history, with periods in time and world cultures superimposed on one another, and then again onto Ireland. He is at great pains to emphasise the symbolic nature of what he says, to the point where he feels the need to break off near the crescendo of one section and tell us that he knows what he is saying is wrong, but that he will say it regardless. He is wrong on any number of things, but he has, on this form, the authority of a holy man.
Early on in the show, he says that this type of performance, by its nature, will be short-lived. There’s only so long he can go on with it before going back to the more traditional dynamics of stand-up. In a sense then, this feels like a sort of purging – he wants to burn off any old complacencies that have built up over the years to allow for fresh growth. The fire might not catch every time, but prepare yourself for when it does.