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James Acaster, Phoenix Theatre review - a masterclass in comedy | reviews, news & interviews

James Acaster, Phoenix Theatre review - a masterclass in comedy

James Acaster, Phoenix Theatre review - a masterclass in comedy

The stand-up's show is his most personal yet

In a show of two halves, James Acaster describes his best and worst years

There's a story in James Acaster's superb new show at the Phoenix Theatre which hangs on him being the first UK comic to shoot several Netflix specials. He doesn't tells us this to boast; far from it. It's to set up another long-form gag, one of several lengthy and interconnected stories he tells in Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, the two-part tale of the best and worst years of his life.

Previous shows by Acaster – for which he has received five nominations at the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Awards – have been surreal inventions, with few personal references (or at least those you could entirely believe). This show, however, is markedly different as he talks about his mental health, his career and his failed relationships.

If that sounds like a downer, it isn't as Acaster, even when referencing the suicidal thoughts that have sometimes entered his head, pulls off the really difficult trick of keeping it light and funny. With a silly aside here, a clever callback there, the poignancy is real but so are the laughs.

He opens with some swearing – or “effing and jeffing” – to signify the new, cool-cat Acaster, wearing mirror shades and Avenger trainers. Not really, though; this is a neat preamble to take a swipe at those comics who think they are cool, or whose edgy routines he says are just taking a dump on minorities (Ricky Gervais getting a call-out).

The first half of the show describes 1999, the happiest year of Acaster's life when, as a child, he and his family witnessed a solar eclipse. But Acaster, as you might expect of someone whose comedy is full of feints, misdirection and delicious irony, is a Moon rather than Sun man. After all, the Moon has powers. “Affects tides and periods. Fair play.”

He mentions 1999 because it was a time just before the internet took over, and before, of course, Brexit was even a thought, and the chaos and division it has wrought upon us was real. Acaster delivers a wonderfully extended metaphor for Brexit and why a second referendum just might be a good idea.

The second half enters new, much more personal territory as Acaster describes 2017, his annus horribilis, when he split up from his girlfriend, his agent dumped him and he had concerns for his mental health. It was all brought to a head by a less than stellar appearance on a celebrity reality show – who knew baking in a tent could be so fraught?

Acaster, cheating slightly on the timeframe, describes an earlier relationship break-up when his girlfriend left him for a fellow comic – “a national treasure”. How do you compete with that, and how cruel is it that the national treasure is actually an international one, so nowhere is safe to go without him being mentioned?

But that's not all as Acaster describes another break-up – from his therapist – whose behaviour sounds disgracefully inappropriate but which gives him a rich source of semi-ironic outrage. It's a complicated section that bears careful listening, but Acaster has an inspired callback that both gathers the stories' strands together and ends the show.

This two-hour show is a masterclass of writing, structure and delivery. Quite brilliant.

  • James Acaster at Phoenix Theatre, London until 19 January; at Vaudeville Theatre, London 25 Feb-2 March; touring from 23 May
  • Read more comedy on theartsdesk
With a silly aside here, a clever callback there, the poignancy is real but so are the laughs

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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