Then, out comes Shazia Mirza. She picks up her microphone, and steps out into the crowd.
The first thing she did was to mock us all for being Guardian readers and intellectuals (“There must be academics here! Are you an academic? You there, in your… glasses”). The next thing she did was steal a man’s giant green fleece, which she did not take off for the entirety of the show. Then we spent a good eight minutes watching a thirteen-year-old member of the audience lecture her on the meaning of the word ‘bohemian’ (to her own astonishment as well). Now perhaps I’m not accustomed to the ways of stand-up comedians and this is standard fare, but it seemed like this might be a very unpredictable two hours.
Our comedian mocked us, she mocked herself, she mocked our society, she mocked her parents’ society, she mocked all cultural stereotypes. She was approachable and easygoing, but could seem embarrassed or awkward; in other words, she seemed entirely naturally herself, even when she was telling stories and anecdotes unashamedly pre-gathered for the show (“I overheard that and then I stuck around, because I thought ‘this is material!’”). This gave the overwhelming impression that we were engaged in a very long, almost entirely one-sided, conversation. I couldn’t have imagined turning to my neighbour (even had I known him) and whispering something opinionated about the show; it would have felt so rude! That Shazia could produce such an effect on me was especially impressive because I was sitting on the top tier of seating, which was a good five or six feet above the top of her head.
So drawn in were we, that when she said that we would be stopping for the interval, everyone was silent, and only moved to applause when she cleared her throat and we suddenly remembered that she was putting on an act for a paying audience and, gosh, hadn't she done well. To explain what it was like, it might be worth imagining a funny conversation with a guest at a party, and then taking everyone out of smart dresses and blue-and-white-striped shirts, and replacing these clothes with, as Shazia mocked, fleeces and linen and hemp and “the kinds of things that Guardian readers wear”. And now imagine that this funny party guest was a little unexpected, and didn’t have your relaxed attitudes towards religion or sex, and wasn’t afraid to be a little flippant (or explicit, as appropriate) in her comments about race, culture or relationships. But you let her off making you feel slightly uncomfortable about your attitudes towards these things, because she said them in an endearing and self-conscious way, and was funny and likable – and it was a party, after all.
Much of Shazia Mirza’s material (although not, by any means, all of it) draws on her experiences as a British, Muslim Asian, who, she jokes, Muslim men “don’t like” because “I… speak.” Whilst my shared experiences as a British Asian who grew up in a very Muslim family probably partly meant that her anecdotes were familiar, I actually enjoyed the stories that drew on her other experiences a little more. For instance, whilst her bit about a conversation with the Queen at a gathering Her Majesty threw for “four hundred Indians … and me” was funny, this wasn’t because of any cultural differences, but because of the utterly bizarre nature of the exchange, and the awkward, off-kilter replies Shazia allegedly made, of the type that everyone who has been a socially-awkward child, teenager, or adult can remember and relate to. In addition, the vast majority of the audience were not, in her words, “brown”, and were laughing, often uproariously, so I think that it is certainly possible to enjoy the humour without relating!
The North Wall Arts Centre, which I have never been to before, is a very nice little place, to sound unintentionally just a bit more patronising than I have any right to sound: there is a gallery near the bar, so if you came alone (as I did), the interval was not dull. Everything outside of the theatre was white and bright and cheerful and, inside, the seating was unfussy and comfortable. An intimate but by no means cramped setting, it was a great place to see the kind of comedian who really didn’t need or want the safety of distance from her audience.