tue 16/10/2018

Stewart Lee, Mercury Theatre, Colchester | reviews, news & interviews

Stewart Lee, Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Stewart Lee, Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Satirical comic is on terrific form and still pushing the boundaries

Stewart Lee: his satire is delivered in an almost professorial manner

It’s a brave comic who declares on stage every night that he would like to see a cute television presenter die in a horrific accident (as nearly happened to Top Gear’s Richard Hammond in 2006). But declares it Stewart Lee does and, for good measure, he also disses a fellow comedian while he’s at it.

Lee’s style is almost professorial; he lays out his material slowly, deliberately in a low, even voice and fashions a joke that may not get its payoff until several minutes later. He even deconstructs his material at times or condescendingly berates the audience for not getting the point quickly enough. He builds jokes layer by layer, often using repetition of words and phrases seemingly to the point of banality, but actually to great dramatic effect.

The comic made his name in the 1990s as one half of Lee and Herring, whose intelligent, surreal comedy in Fist of Fun and Lee and Herring (Radio 1 and BBC2) defined a generation of student humour. In 2003 Lee co-wrote the quite brilliant Jerry Springer: The Opera, which came under sustained attack from the religious right, and in 2004 he returned to stand-up with a solo show. If Lee’s on-screen persona with Herring had been Mr Grumpy, he now had cause to be Mr Angry too, and the fallout from the JSTO brouhaha fuelled sensationally good, often highly controversial satire.

Lee's stand-up career has been an unmitigated triumph and each new show pushes the boundaries of both taste and comic invention a little bit further. His latest, entitled If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, is no exception in both departments, and it also contains a real surprise in its delivery. But more of that later.

The inspiration for the show is a remark recently made by Scottish comic Frankie Boyle (the shouty one just departed from BBC2’s Mock the Week); there are no funny comedians over the age of 40, he said. Lee, 41, begs to differ and subverts the ridiculous ageism in that remark by railing about that most middle-aged obsession, his loyalty card at a high-street coffee chain, which was refused by an officious barista. In a inspired segment that lasts fully 15 minutes, Lee manages to skewer petty rules, corporate greed, middle-class smugness and the futile anger of a man trying to flounce out of said coffee shop but who has to negotiate a narrow doorway with his toddler in a pushchair.

Like much of this show, the riff is expertly crafted and delivered. But while Lee is preaching to the converted about The Man, it's when he spins an elaborate story about Richard Hammond - sidekick of Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear (who also gets a kicking) - that he flirts with danger. Many of the more outrageous comments- “I want to see Hammond decapitated and his head on a stick” - are followed with “It’s just a joke!" a la Clarkson when he is making one of his trademark hilarious comments about gays or greens. It’s a neat trick but one so layered in ironies that the risk is that not all the audience appreciate just where the joke lies.

And then the surprise, when Lee tells us he wants to break the last taboo of comedy. I won’t spoil the joke, but suffice to say it has another elaborate set-up, tugs at the heartstrings and then delivers a very funny sucker punch. He is on sensationally good form.

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