Review – James Acaster, Zebra Xmas 2017, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 21st December 2017

James AcasterOnce 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.

James AcasterThe 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.

j-acaster-2The 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.

James AWhether 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.

4 thoughts on “Review – James Acaster, Zebra Xmas 2017, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 21st December 2017

  1. Sounds like a Mercury Rx mishap to me. Ends today 8:44 pm EST. He’ll get back into the right speed. Now, how much of the following still applies?

    How To Tell A Story (by either Jackie Gleason, a ghostwriter, or both)

    Take our hotel party we threw to celebrate the opening of jackie gleason enterprises. The party was a success because it was carefully planned, & the same is necessary when a partygoer wants a good response from his jokes & stories. All successful storytellers have a good sense of organization & an instinct for the surprise twist at the end.

    Of course, one of the most horrifying aspects of comedy is the basic fact that what is funny to one person or group is not equally amusing to others.

    The Losers:

    The self-important raconteur who’s indignant… when you fail to laugh…

    The indefatigable laborer, who usually has some success because by the time he’s three sentences into his joke, you’re so numb that almost any finish is acceptable…

    The guy who laughs constantly as he tells his story. When he collapses at the end, he thereby ruins it…

    The Two Worst: The fighting-uphill type who has to untangle himself from a million roadblocks. By the time he gets to his point, you’ve forgotten what he was trying to tell you in the 1st place. So has he…

    And the slow-downhill type, who keeps forgetting the details. When he gets to the punch line… “You probably wouldn’t believe this… but I forgot how it comes out.”

    1) Know Your Audience: Even the best joke told under the wrong conditions can bomb badly. Size up your audience before taking the plunge.

    2) Know Your Joke: There are few people more exasperating than those who bog down in the middle or leave out pertinent lines.

    3) Don’t Clutter Your Yarn: Avoid detours, & diversions.

    4) Don’t Tell Your Story Too Fast or Too Slow: Let the details follow each other naturally & unhurriedly.

    5) If You’re Losing Your Audience, Quit: There is nothing worse than being a compulsive storyteller.

    6) Pause Ever So Slightly Before Delivering the Punch Line.

    7) Don’t Attempt Dialects You Can’t Handle Expertly: This can be almost unbearable – & rude.

    8) Don’t Laugh As You Finish, Thus Obscuring the Whole Point.

    9) If The Joke Falls Flat, Don’t Apologize: The apologizer is almost worse than the inept storyteller. Even more boorish is the man who insults his listeners’ intelligence by implying that the joke is over their heads.

    If you’ve laid a bomb, it isn’t necessary to draw a gun & blow your brains out. All that’s needed is a graceful shrug, which might even draw the laugh you didn’t get in the first place.

    10) Don’t Press Your Luck: If you score with a funny story, don’t let it go to your head.

    Source: The Honeymooner’s Companion (pp. 114-16; originally, 1956; THC copyright, 1978). Liberties were taken with substituting appropriate words in lieu of passé ones, correcting verb tenses, etc.

    I discovered that it was impossible to follow normal quotation & other rules without ruining the material’s “flow.” I’ve taken editing liberties when it was necessary to succinctly state Gleason’s points. Likewise, passé words which “stop” the reader were replaced with more apt expressions (“kicker” became “punch line,” etc.).

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