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Stewart Lee, Leicester Square Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Stewart Lee, Leicester Square Theatre

Stewart Lee, Leicester Square Theatre

A show about nothing says everything about the craft of understated stand-up

'Let’s have a look at what’s wrong with that joke': all's right with Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee is in Eeyorish mood. The BBC have not yet got round to recommissioning his acclaimed television show. They have been more bountiful, he grumbles, with Russell Howard, and you can hear the older man’s withering scorn for the younger, blonder cherub contractually obliged never to step away from the cameras. On the plus side, he is in residence at this cosy but capacious theatre until February, a booking that only the promise of television audiences can gift. New recruits have therefore been persuaded in, but they do not receive a friendly greeting: the understanding is that they will be a fickle lot who won’t understand Lee at 33rpm, the long-playing version.

This is comedy in inverted commas, stand-up about itself. The metatextual riffing is mostly focused on the sheer badness of the show, the lack of a signature style. Lee compares and contrasts himself with observational comedians, foul-mouthed American comedians, with Jimmy Carr (“for Jimmy Carr viewers, that’s irony”, he advises quietly). It’s lacerating stuff, mostly understated. Even his old partner Richard Herring, who fashioned an entire show out of a moustache, is seen ducking for cover in the hail of bullets.

Lee’s material is in the lack of it. Where other comedians with small children turn to their newly born housemates for inspiration, Lee acknowledges the reality that parenthood shrinks horizons and, in a comic’s case, narrows available options. Lee knows rather more about Scooby-Doo these days and riffs on it at bravura length. By the second half he has launched himself on a fruitless quest for material along the North Circular.

It should be called the See What I Did There tour

The jokes, of course, are all in the spaces where the punchlines should be. Lee steps away from the material to be his own exegetical commentator and professorial summariser. Much of the first half is a struggle to find something meaningful to say about Islam – impossible, he suggests, when he and we know so little about it. “Let’s have a look at what’s wrong with that joke,” he says after an aside about his dentist whom he assumes to be a lesbian. Another joke fails because it refers to a front-bencher whose cross-dressing habit will not become generally known for another six months. He tells us in advance that the following won't get a laugh. It should be called the See What I Did There tour.

Of course, in all this protesting too much there are many of the usual signposts. Where else do you get comedy that namedrops Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls and Henry James’s The Wings of a Dove? If there is anything to regret, it’s that he doesn’t quite trust his audience to go all the way with some of this stuff. If they really share his bourgeois tastes, they would certainly have enjoyed an adroit routine about Archipelago, the gruellingly novelistic arthouse movie mentioned in dispatches as the only other film he has seen this year apart from Scooby-Doo.

As the evening progresses the tone grows more sullen and self-pitying as Lee gripes about comedians who have successfully crafted shows out of bereavement or illness or buying items. He does it so artlessly you can almost feel his pain. He is eventually reduced to reading from a cue card a long litany of epithets, mostly beginning with C, hurled in his specific direction in comment streams and on Twitter (which doubles as online surveillance, even if people do confuse him with someone from UB40 or a Serbian warlord). These assaults are no less bilious than grenades directed by Americans at the memory of Osama bin Laden (which he cites in the first half). The strange thing is that these vile insults get the biggest laughs of all. It’s the way he tells them. No need to splash out on the superlatives, but this is superbly crafted, counterintuitive entertainment. The BBC should think again.

  • Stewart Lee is at the Leicester Square Theatre until 10 February, 2012
The metatextual riffing is mostly focused on the sheer badness of the show, the lack of a signature style

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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