Comedy review: Russell Howard, Respite, at Aotea Centre, New Zealand

In 2021, what does gratitude sound like? Having witnessed it first hand, I’d say it’s the sound of a 2000-seat auditorium lit up with laughter, a sold-out theatre filled to the roof with the sheer noise and relief of it.

Russell Howard is here to tell us about the world, and the news isn’t good. But if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, and that is exactly Howard’s point. And so we fill the room with it.

“That was entirely new material,” he says with surprise, just 10 minutes into the show. “I think tonight is going to go very well.”

Howard is one of the world’s biggest comedy stars. His flow is punchy and unstoppable, and he bounds across the stage like a puppy, a twinkle in his eye, and a half grin on his lips at all times.

But Howard is no puppy – there is darkness behind the goofy grin, and his material is surprisingly smutty, from the state of the world to the taste of vaginas; from influencers to anti-vaxxers, to an inappropriate incident in front of a lion (he was protecting his wife, ok?). He’s angry too – at the politicians and the conspiracy theorists and the sexists and the feminists. No one is safe, least of all his long-suffering family (who are probably used to it by now, after years of Howard’s ridicule).

The news has long been a theme of Howard’s work. He’s been a fixture of British television for years, with a seven-year run of Russell Howard’s Good News, followed by The Russell Howard Hour, which laughed its way through a news cycle that lately has felt fairly crushing at the best of times.

And tonight he’s on theme, covering politics and pandemics. He revels in his newfound freedom, and the job Jacinda has done. He pays tribute to the doctors on the frontline (Howard’s wife is an NHS doctor, and the stark contrast between his job and hers is more fuel for the fire). He takes aim at politicians and media and misogynists and hypocrites. But he holds it all in his jaws gently, playing with it before spitting it out intact. He’s up there waving his fist at the world, but always with an answer – to read beyond the headlines, to stay playful, to find the moments that really matter.

Just a glance at Howard’s touring schedule shows how devastating the past year has been for the arts. Respite was first announced in 2018, and kicked off with dates at Wembley Arena and throughout Europe, until the pandemic stopped the tour in its tracks. This is material that has been polished on crowds of well more than 10,000, now being served up in regional theatres across New Zealand, to audiences experiencing a freedom most of the world can’t fathom right now.

It’s uncertain whether Howard will make it to his shows in New York in May, or Australia by July. But he is clearly aware of how lucky he is to be back on tour, performing again. And this audience knows exactly how lucky they are to have him here tonight.

The state of the world might be bad, but the good news is, there’s still plenty to laugh about.

Respite is performing at venues around New Zealand until Feb 13. For dates and tickets, go to livenation.co.nz

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