Once again we welcome a big name to a tiny theatre – James Acaster’s pre-Christmas work-in-progress show at the 85-seater Playhouse in Northampton. Why would he deign to visit this humble hive of artistic endeavour when the world is his oyster? Because he’s a local lad done good, that’s why. This was the third and final of the shows – unsurprisingly all the tickets get snapped up the moment the word is out that he’s coming back.
Last year, we had a hoot. Mr Acaster doled out funny sequences and ridiculous insights and was exactly the languid, quirky comic that the nation has taken to its hearts. However, as Mr A told us in this new show, 2017 hasn’t been a kind year. A relationship breakdown, his agent dropping him and visits to a counsellor have all played their part in forming what sounds like his own annus horribilis. And whilst he doesn’t go into any detail in the first two of those events, he does use the counselling sessions as part of his gig. The whole experience sounds appalling. I could only gasp in horror; I couldn’t laugh at that if I tried. If Philip Pullman hadn’t already nabbed His Dark Materials as a title, it would be perfect for Mr A’s current mindset.
The evening started promisingly, with some lovely observations about expecting the end of the year and then being all surprised when it turns into January again. He then reminisced about how much he enjoyed 1999 – a great year for him – and how 2017 was rubbish by comparison. I too remember the eclipse of 1999; it was a fascinating and beautiful moment. However, not being a Manchester United fan, I remembered nothing of their particular success that year. Mr A has a lot of Manchester United material; and, to be honest, it did go on a bit. After the interval, he had more excellent material about the dreaded Brexit; very beautifully crafted, cleverly never saying the B word, or indeed the R word, and for me that was the highlight of the show.
But then Mr A seemed to lose heart with us; we weren’t responding as he’d hoped and that’s when our relationship faltered. There had been an elephant in the room right from the start – and that’s Northampton. Whenever a touring comic comes to a town, they inevitably ask the audience what it’s like living there and inevitably the reply comes back: “it’s sh*t”. This is certainly true of Northampton audiences, and I expect they say the same thing in Chelsea. It’s very trendy – almost a badge of honour – to knock where you live. Because Mr A is a Northamptonshire Native, he knows full well all the town’s downsides; and now that he lives in London he can pile on the caustic humour of looking down on Northampton. That’s fair enough, so long as you accompany it with the verbal or physical equivalent of a winking emoji.
The trouble was, Mr A’s disappointment with a Northampton audience’s responses came across as too real. I personally felt like I was under some kind of cultural attack. We were ridiculed for our inability to appreciate all his material because we’re not sophisticated enough. We were made to feel guilty for the fact that we were an all-white audience; that’s really not our fault! When he changed his planned ending, because he didn’t think we’d get it, to a Q&A session, someone in the audience groaned at one of his answers; not a nasty, heckling groan, more a teasing, comedic groan. Mr A basically said that was a typical Northampton response and the show finished fairly abruptly thereafter.
Now all this could be really tongue-in-cheek on his part, all part of a double-bluff which we’re not meant to take seriously. But Mr A had been like this all night and hadn’t built up a trust rapport at which he could later chisel away. He started the night with the idea that we shouldn’t get too emotionally attached to him because we’re never going to be friends, he’s just there to do a job and go home. In isolation, that’s a funny observation to make; but throughout the course of the evening I felt more and more that he wasn’t joking and that he would have been happier at home. As a result, there wasn’t much positivity for us to grab hold of and keep us onside for the whole show.
Whether this is true or made up, I don’t know, but at one stage Mr A said that he’d received a tweet after the previous show that just read: “James Acaster needs a hug” (big laugh, because I reckon a number of us thought that) to which he responded that he didn’t need a hug, and that reaction is patronising. That’s probably true too. Trouble is, it signified that we really didn’t know how to respond to him without seeming to offend him, which made for a generally uncomfortable evening. He always comes across as a genuinely nice guy – so when he gets aggressive, it just feels wrong.
But that’s what work-in-progress is all about.