Tales from the Sauna opens with a voiceover from a 1960s psychiatrist about how all gays are socially and sexually inadequate borderline pyschopaths. It closes with the story of the priest who had a heart attack in a Dublin sauna, where three other priests were on hand in their towels to give him the last rites. This is a political show but not in any ranting way. Agnew’s response is to go through the sociology and etiquette of sauna behaviour, with a lot of personal experience thrown in. Far from being crude, it presents visiting saunas as a genial ‘comedie humaine’, in which the defining characteristics are ordinary male behaviour in all its ridiculousness and occasional hypocrisy.
There are plenty of risqué references, which makes this a difficult act to quote from in a family paper. However, this is also a world in which the punters stop doing their business to watch ‘Richard and Judy’ when they come on the reception TV; where people without a bed go into saunas to try and get a night’s sleep.
Agnew manages many jokes against himself without putting himself down, which is a difficult tightrope to walk. With all his foibles, he is part of gay life’s rich pageant. There is a deal of affection here for the fresh-faced newcomers, the elderly gays, the fetishists and the straight men who also visit saunas to get their rocks off. This is seen as being as natural, and as harmless, as blowing your nose.
Agnew’s warmth is potent and he holds the stage effortlessly for nearly an hour, dealing amicably with interruptions in an unpatronising way. His energy is formidable and his heart and mind are absolutely in the right place. He’s a man you’d want to go for a beer with.
The audience is surprisingly mixed - gay, lesbian, straight and Don’t Knows - but the material works on all levels. Agnew is more than a gay comedian, he is a gay community comedian. He has roots, substance, and he knows where he belongs. Few can articulate that so entertainingly and with such charm.