There were a lot of shocked and disappointed people after the EU referendum last year and several comics have used the result to fashion some good comedy, delivering state-of-the-nation material in their shows. For Ahir Shah, though, the more he thought about the result, the more he took it personally.
He starts Control at Soho Theatre by giving us a mnemonic for his first name – Alpha, Hero, Indian, Romeo. It's a deft way into revealing his comic self – bombastic, teasing, self-deprecating, playful – and it's a persona he falls back into several times in the show (which I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it was nominated for best show in the Edinburgh Comedy Awards).
Back to the meat and potatoes of Control; Shah reckons the referendum and the 2017 UK general election results (and indeed Donald Trump's victory in the US) exposed a nasty, racist brand of nationalism that doesn't recognise people like him – British-born of Asian immigrant parents – as “one of us”. His previously held belief, that the UK is becoming a nicer, more tolerant and more progressive nation, now looks rather naive.
But, passionate Remainer though he is, Shah doesn't want to alienate Leavers, still less brand them as idiots or fools, as one of the most intelligent people he knows – one of his university professors – is a Leaver. Indeed he makes great effort not to fall into the trap of delivering more “them and us” nonsense. After all, wasn't it the increasing polarisation of UK politics that damned us in the first place? And, while he is clearly on the liberal left, Shah dishes it out to those near him on the political spectrum; Jeremy Corbyn, he reminds us, has historically quite liked people who would happily use less than democratic means to remove the opposition, whether in Northern Ireland, Israel or Venezuela.
Rather, he uses issues around the referendum result to develop a brilliant treatise on colonialism and the continuing nostalgia for the British Empire that is so toxic in UK politics. If that makes this show sound serious or dull, it is anything but, and Shah is a passionate performer who works himself up into a froth at times to make his point.
And he's a really likeable performer – engaging with the audience, slyly taking himself down, and using a clever leitmotif that involves his love of Nando's (despite him being a vegetarian), which neatly makes the point that you can vote for the “wrong” party for the “right” reasons. He also deploys the metaphor of rancid politics being like sour milk – why do we insist on sniffing it even when we know it's off? What doesn't work so well is weaving his love life into his Brexit argument – “I'm entering the single market” – which seems forced.
But this is an unashamedly intellectual show, with great oratorial skill, littered with insights and finely worked jokes, and worth an hour of anybody's time, however you voted on 23 June 2016.
- Ahir Shah at Soho Theatre until 7 October
- Read more comedy on theartsdesk