Kevin Hart returns to UK to amplify the outrageous in Reality Check tour | Comedy

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Kevin Hart is back in the UK on his first tour since Irresponsible (2018) which, with zillions of tickets sold, is in the mix whenever anyone tots up the biggest comedy tours of all time. Away from jokes at a microphone, this is a career measured in dollars, opening weekends (Hart, with a handful of Jumanji movies under his belt, is also a Hollywood star) – and public controversies. The last of them saw North African gigs cancelled earlier this year after the 43-year-old suggested that ancient Egyptians were black.

All of which prompts the question: does the Philadelphia man still have what it takes to entertain a comedy crowd? On the basis of the last Kevin Hart show I saw, a lockdown-era special Zero F**ks Given, one might begin to doubt it. But Reality Check finds Hart on strong form. The former, filmed in his living room, found Hart still wrestling with fallout from the 2018 row, over historic homophobic tweets, that saw him step down from his role as Oscars host. The new show strikes a better balance between self-reflection, self-assurance and big-hitting laughs.

Like Zero F**ks, it starts with a content warning (“buckle up, bitch!”) on which it doesn’t remotely deliver. Hype aside, this isn’t a show that will frighten the horses or, for the most part, the sensitivities of today’s trigger-unhappy audiences. The opening routine may threaten it, as Hart riffs on the idea that nowadays, “everyone wants change”. But his examples are mild: plastic surgery, LeBron James’ hair transplant, and – funniest of all – an operation Hart’s been told about that might increase his diminutive stature. (In the words of his friend: “they givin’ out height!”)

Big screen draw … with Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black in Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle.
Big screen draw … with Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black in Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle. Photograph: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Allstar

This latter idea is spun into a choice cartoon of dismayed and self-mocking comedy, in the service (just about) of Hart’s idea that we need to “stop entertaining the crazy”. And so instances are wheeled out of modern behaviour that (he thinks) we ought to be keeping in check: a man inserting his penis into breakfasts at Denny’s; a woman protesting assault in the metaverse. There’s a wild-eyed routine about Hart’s brother and his imaginary pet dog, and much fun burlesquing that other notorious recent Oscars wipeout, Will Smith and “the slap”.

You might argue that this material – outrageous real-world behaviour on which Hart merely reports back – is doing the comic’s work for him. But it plays to his considerable strengths as a performer, as he enacts one scene after another, laughing along with us, amplifying the outrage with eye-popping expressivity. The best example might be the last, as Hart relates a viral video about a woman throwing her faeces at a barista. Easy-meat material it may be, but Hart’s placing of himself inside the scenario, slowly realising what substance has just smacked him square on the temple, is a mini-masterpiece of acting out and comic timing.

The comic temperature falls a little in the final third, with Hart’s more straightforwardly autobiographical material. Now in his 40s, “I’m spending more time with myself,” he tells us, and has less patience with things he tolerated when young. His friends’ delinquent behaviour, for example – cue a routine about taking weed on a flight to Mexico, distinguished by Hart’s intense caricature of a Spanish-speaking narcotics agent. Like a later section, on his role as a reluctant Black Lives Matter activist, the presiding joke here is Hart’s cowardice. Another gag, about his aversion to “unattractive people”, likewise pivots to self-mockery before its meanness starts to rankle.

A level of craft is at play, then, that I felt was missing from Zero F**ks Given, whose jokes didn’t always feel as adroitly judged. Undeniably, too, this is a comic whose standout skills – all those cartoonish act-outs and hyperbolic overreactions to modern living – come into their own in dialogue with a loud and lively crowd. Perhaps locked-down in a living room was never going to cut it – but back in arenas, Kevin Hart is on song.

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