We’ve seen Stewart Lee occasionally on television and thought he came over as an intelligent comedian; my only criticism from his TV appearances would be that perhaps he lacks a touch of charisma. Still, anyone who co-wrote “Jerry Springer The Opera” has got to be worth going to see. On stage, however, he comes over far more vibrantly. He is a true wordsmith. His sentences are crafted with immaculate care; he is a poet of a comedian. He has a superb understanding of how words go together, using alliteration and rhythm; he can express a simple concept using words that you would not normally associate with it, thereby making you see the concept in a different way. He is just a delight to listen to.
The basis (apparently) of this tour is that he is trying out new material that will be recorded in December for his new TV series which will air in March 2014. He said he will give us the content of three thirty-minute programmes – one before the interval and two afterwards. Setting the context of the gig in this way immediately gave it an artificiality, a surrealism, which in itself was very funny, but ever so slightly weird. A Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt – old Bertolt would have been dead impressed.
Mr Lee deconstructs the whole idea of a comedy gig perfectly; explaining how jokes will be set up in advance for you to watch out for, almost undermining his own material and skill but with a very satisfactory comedic result. He’ll stop to remonstrate with the audience as to why they didn’t laugh at one particular joke, for example. It’s a very self-assured and individual approach to comedy and it really works. Of course, what will go well on a TV programme may not go quite so well with a live audience in Northampton. As I have observed many times before, Northampton audiences don’t tend to “get” political humour. I don’t know if it’s that we don’t follow current affairs, don’t have any political views, don’t have any time for politicians; but you can get a really great set from a comic that examines and ridicules current political thought and it sails right over our combined heads. True enough, all his stuff about Cameron and Milliband, etc, was very telling and intelligent, but the audience reaction was relatively quiet.
However, what we do “get”, is any hint of prejudice. Any comic that comes out onto a Northampton stage and gets a little bit racist or a little bit homophobic tends to get short shrift. Mr Lee had a superb routine about UKIP (ok that part’s political) ridiculing the party’s barely concealed xenophobia in an extended reductio ad absurdam which had everyone in fits. It was such a simple but revealing way to expose nonsensical prejudice against immigration – and immigrants; quite brilliant. He also had another terrific sequence about how someone “came out” as Latvian – again, a really clever and funny pop at homophobia.
I have never seen a comic ridicule a member of the audience for using their mobile phone so intensively as Stewart Lee did after the first few minutes of the show. Mr Lee called out into the audience “what’s that light, it’s really putting me off” – the owner of the said phone mumbled something about Facebook, but another member of the audience nearer the stage said to Mr Lee “it’s his torch”, and for about the next ten minutes he did a brilliant routine about how some people are so inexperienced about theatre that they didn’t know there would be lighting, or electricity, installed there. Then he carried on with a mock phone call to Michael McIntyre, warning him the next time he came to Northampton to watch for audience members with torches – and that McIntyre would need to use different comeback lines from the ones he had used – and on, and on, it went; it was completely brilliant and you would never, ever dare turn on your phone in a theatre again.
We got extremely good value for money – including the interval it ran for a good two and a half hours. His material is original, quirky, and beautifully recounted. I’d definitely see him again and would thoroughly recommend this show!