ED Byrne did appear at the debut Live At Theatre Royal Comedy Night after all. On late substitute Milton Jones’s mobile phone in an impromptu exchange where Jones had the last word, over and over, setting up Ed for his genial jibes like Federer putting away a backhand passing shot.
“Byrne out” had struck this gig when the whimsical Irishman’s own phone had pinged him with the message of our times: “You Need To Self-Isolate” , until 23.59pm on July 7.
Byrne was indeed at home, doing passing-the-time things, by way of contrast with this fast-moving, no-interval comedy bill, kept on its toes in brisk fashion by host Arthur Smith, who was largely in rather jollier mood than his usual lugubrious, Grumpy Old Man schtick, as casual as his summer shorts.
So, here was the alternative Smith and Jones show, plus Rhys James in his first gig since times BC (before Covid) and Maisie Adam, the Pannal humorist familiar from panel shows, still defiantly sporting her half-shaven lockdown hair.
James, looking impossibly boyish as he hits 30 this year, is from the time-honoured school of cheeky chappy comedy, full of wry observations and a winning line in self-deprecation, not least over sharing a name – albeit spelt differently – with England’s full back Reece James. He found his feet back on the comedy turf rather better than his namesake in his Euro 2020 debut against Scotland.
Maisie Adam, enthusiastic football player in a Brighton women’s team and fabulous storyteller, was loving being back home in Pannal, visiting Ripon and taking the train across the Knaresborough viaduct.
Like James, she was adjusting to a return to audience interaction after a surfeit of streamed gigs into the silent digital ether, an experience much like howling into the wind, and how she relished the sound of laughter, so vital to a comic’s timing and rhythm. Such delightful, sometimes daft, often astute company, the fearless, forthright Maisie is on the unstoppable rise, you better Adam and Eve it.
In the absence – save for that surprise phone cameo – of ‘edliner Ed Byrne, comedy paradise was found in Milton, the joker with a quip in every soundbite, a pun-slinger always one step ahead of the audience guessing games.
Hair wilder than Doddy, Hawaiian shirt as over-excitable as a teenager’s first holiday away from the parental grip, Jones had a hit rate of word-play gags so consistent, so precise, it was the equivalent of reducing a dartboard to only the bullseye and still never missing.
Behind the deadpan delivery, his abundant sense of mischief, gift for mimicry, smart political sensibility and unerring radar for what’s funny without the need for offence, all wrapped inside his endless joy in a one-liner, were such welcome light relief after so many months of darkness.
In Damian Cruden’s two decades of artistic directorship, comedy nights were strangely absent from the York Theatre Royal calendar, but chief executive Tom Bird is now taking a different tack, and you can surely expect more bills to follow the lead of the Smith and Jones show.