Off-the-wall comedy

Now playing a run of stand-up shows across the UAE, Hal Cruttenden explains travelling the road from Ealing, West London to the Arabian Peninsula.

Hal Cruttenden may have never meant to be a comic, but his packed performance schedule bears testimony to his skill as an entertainer.
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As soon as the comedian Hal Cruttenden steps on stage you know that you are in safe hands. Safe, of course, doesn't have to mean boring. Cruttenden, a comedian since 1996, has spent enough time on stage to make stand-up look easy. Working as the warm-up act for Rob Brydon, the star of Gavin and Stacey, on his UK tour, he has also scooped a nomination for the highly prized Perrier newcomer award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002.

From Ealing, West London and born "soon after the moon landings" in 1969, Cruttenden grew up in a family that valued artistic pursuits and had an upbringing that he describes as "classic for a comedian. I was the youngest in a family of three, desperate for attention and getting it". His mother and father were involved with The Questors Theatre in Ealing, synonymous with high-quality amateur dramatics. His mother was a theatrical make-up artist while his late father, an advertising executive, always wanted to be an actor but thought it too risky a venture.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Hal and his sister Abigail ended up as child actors (Hal's older sister is now a psychotherapist, a fact that he jokes is an appropriate counterweight to two performers). Abigail has gone on to carve out quite a niche in TV comedy with credits including Benidorm and Rosemary & Thyme ("she does more TV comedy than I do" jokes Hal) while Cruttenden managed to reinvent himself as a stand up after a stint at drama school. However, while Abigail's route into the business was relatively smooth Hal found being a child actor difficult:

"Before stand-up I was always a nervous performer and so the other child performers were a bit a of nightmare for me, all dancing around in a T-shirt from the latest production they did at the National Youth Theatre or whatever. I was ultimately a shy person and that didn't really suit me. I remember the first telly thing I did was a Channel 4 production called A Married Man with Anthony Hopkins. I had one short scene but I was so nervous I was hopping from foot to foot. Hopkins was nice to me but I could feel the director thinking, 'This bloody kid? why won't he just stop moving!' It took about 12 takes to do that one shot."

He ultimately decided that the pressure of childhood acting was not for him: "That was a bit silly because by 20 or 21 I wanted to be an actor again, but child acting is quite a horrible world really and it gives you an unrealistic impression of the business. When I was a kid I never 'found a job'. I just used to go to auditions and get them. As a grown-up actor that almost never happened. Also, I was a bit more serious when I was a kid and I really wanted to be a journalist. That's what I was planning when I went to university and then realised that I wasn't an intellectual, had no inclination to write for the university paper or train up to be a foreign correspondent holed up in a hotel in Iraq."

Instead, drama school beckoned, which led to the familiar route of a jobbing actor: bit parts in TV shows such as EastEnders and Kavanagh QC. He also had a stint writing traffic reports for the BBC Radio network. Somewhat surreally, it was from here that he made his move into comedy, after a colleague suggested he enrol on a comedy course. "Initially I thought that this would be useful for doing a one-man show but in actual fact it meant that all the pieces fitted together in the sense that comedy was absolutely what I wanted to do. The first time I did a gig I thought, 'However bad it gets, I know this is what I can do and what I should be doing'."

Confidence was one hurdle, but he says that he had always thought stand up meant you had to be pretty tough and streetwise to survive, citing Mark Thomas as an example. As a self-confessed "softie", Cruttenden felt out of place. Fortunately as his stage nerves subsided so did his preconceptions, thanks mainly to Eddie Izzard. "I thought if that man can be a bit posh, dress like him and not spend his whole time defending himself, then I can be myself on stage too. When I finally met him, one night at The Comedy Store, the first thing I said to him was, 'You are the reason I do this.'"

Hal and his wife, Dawn, met 10 years ago. They have been married for nine-and-a-half of those years ("we knew within two weeks that we wanted to be together," he says) and have two young daughters, Martha and Grace. Dawn, who hails from Northern Ireland, features quite regularly in Hal's act and he says she doesn't mind that he jokes that she marches around the house or his impression of her knocking on the bathroom door and saying in a broad Northern Irish accent: "Hal, you've got five minutes."

"She has a really interesting outlook on life because she grew up in a tough part of Derry," he explains. "She knew people who were killed or who disappeared. Then there's me who grew up in a very middle- class part of West London and yet I worry a lot about more about life than she does." Though Hal is no stranger to pain, his father having died at 50 (just one year in to a later flowering acting career, it turns out), he adds: "My wife has seen horrible things so she doesn't understand when I wake up at 4am worrying about having a big face. We're very different people and that's what keeps us entertained."

Hal cites one example of their complementary relationship, conjuring up a Christmas-dinner scene where his wife's relatives, many of whom are in the services, recount stories of finding or even defusing bombs: "Then it comes to me and I say, 'Well someone nearly headbutted me at a gig'. A different level of danger altogether?" Though not in the front line of danger, Hal's life is still pretty fraught. When I speak to him he has just finished a run of Orwell: A Celebration at the Trafalgar Studios in London, thereby getting back to his acting roots, and is 24 hours away from getting on the plane to the UAE for his comedy tour. He travels extensively and has visited the Emirates twice before, saying that he finds the Middle Eastern audiences "very appreciative of the fact that visiting comics have come a long way and, because it is largely an expat audience, it is a taste of home for them".

When he returns to the UK he wont have long to enjoy home comforts as he is fully booked with gigs until after Christmas, including reprising his warm-up role for Brydon and planning an international tour next spring. "I've also got two sitcom ideas in development," he says. "One of them is with quite an established comedian. I am hoping it will be picked up by someone, but don't want to talk too much about that just yet?"

? Hal Cruttenden will perform with Paul Tonkinson and Karl Spain at the Crowne Plaza in Abu Dhabi tonight, the Crowne Plaza Dubai on Wednesday, and The Country Club Hotel in Dubai on Thursday. For information visit www.the