“I’m sorry for using the fact that you liked some sitcoms I was in, to force a TED talk on you.”
Indeed. It’s very likely that a good portion of the sold-out crowd in Bristol Grammar School’s beautiful 1532 Performing Arts Centre have come to see Tom Rosenthal on the back of his beguiling roles as, respectively, a hapless young jack-the-lad adrift in the big (Roman) city (Plebs) and a prank-happy younger brother (Friday Night Dinner).
What is actually on offer tonight is actually quite some way from either of those roles, although the cheeky city-boy smarts survive intact.
Rosenthal’s beautifully crafted solo show Manhood draws on the current fascination with autobiographical / single-themed comedy shows – and shows off the format at its most painstaking, eloquent and, well, moving.
Manhood takes a single fact of Rosenthal’s life, a decision taken on his behalf whose repercussions have been… well, way beyond what was envisaged. And Rosenthal doesn’t just want to open up this little chapter and then disappear off into the night: he’s on something of a crusade, it turns out, making tonight a fascinating and totally effective mix of stand-up, autobiography and activism.
But first things first. Rosenthal’s support, the Anglo-Turkish (but really very, very English) Naz Osmanoglu, co-starred with Rosenthal in the BBC3 sitcom mini-series Flat TV, and in many ways the two are cut from the same cloth: purveyors of highly articulate, indignant or self-deprecating takedowns of modern life in all its quirks, oddities and foibles.
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The high point of Osmanoglu’s short but engaging set is a baroque tale of single life and its no-one’s-watching indulgences: a story that builds masterfully in intensity and dramatic tension, culminating in a messy set-to between a Deliveroo burger, a selfie stick and probably not quite enough clothes. I’ll leave that there.
So, onto Tom Rosenthal and his very issue-driven show. Rosenthal was circumcised as a baby (for no very good reason, he points out bitterly, as his family hadn’t been practising Jews for some four generations) and has lived with the physical and emotional, um, scars ever since.
Via a mix of diagrams, bar graphs and eloquent rage, he demonstrates that the cited health and hygiene reasons for practising circumcisions are, well, a load of balls – and he then goes onto demonstrate the negative effects this unwanted operation has had on him in later life.
It’s wonderfully passionate yet also articulate stuff, and you leave the theatre having had at least as much of a laugh as you’d expect from any stand-up comedian at the top of their game. That’s garnished, though, with something a little more unexpected: empathy, fascination, a bit of a history/science lesson, and a new awareness of the mental and physical trauma of a practice that needs to be outlawed.
This is very personal stuff, and Rosenthal is a man wracked by anxiety at the best of times – in fact before we get onto the circumcision, there’s some hilarious stuff about his OCD and how everything down to his sex life is governed by multiples of four. All the more impressive, then, for him to get up on stage and talk so candidly about the physical and emotional fallout of this decision made on his behalf.
Above all, Manhood is beautifully paced and constructed, Rosenthal deploying a brilliant mix of his own quickfire, hyper-articulate stand-up (including more ways to describe the texture of the circumcised penis than you’d have thought possible) and some very well-used video, imagery and props. It’s a masterclass in high-concept comedy.
Comics are doing the funny-yet-heartfelt thing more and more now, but few are doing it as well as Rosenthal does it here.
Tom Rosenthal performed Manhood at the 1532 Performing Arts Centre on Saturday, February 29, courtesy of Bristol promoters Chuckle Busters. To see what they’ve got coming up, visit www.chucklebusters.com