Review – Stewart Lee, Snowflake/Tornado, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th March 2020

Stewart LeeWe saw Stewart Lee seven years ago with his Much a-Stew About Nothing tour, and I really admired (and found hysterical) his unique style of deconstructing a show and turning it in on itself. I also noted his no-holds-barred stance of calling out any audience member who dares to check their phone… more of which later.  So when I saw he was touring again it was a no-brainer to book.

Snowflake and Tornado are (allegedly) two one hour shows that have been put together for the purposes of this tour, but they dovetail together so completely that they do indeed create one night of content. Tornado comes first – originating from a misdescription of his Netflix show that stayed online for two years; the description given was actually for the comic-schlock horror movie Sharknado, which gives Mr Lee lots of scope for imagining how the two could be combined, and it’s very clever stuff. Somehow into this madness he manages to involve Alan Bennett, in a brilliant scene where he re-imagines a Sharknado attack in a suburban Bennett semi, populated by typical Bennett pensioners. It’s a terrific flight of fancy, and, with Mr Lee’s disturbingly accurate impersonation of the Yorkshire National Treasure himself, was the absolute highlight of the evening.

Snowflake centres on Mr Lee’s doubt as to where he now fits in the comedy scene, given the country’s shift towards the right, which he perceives has made popular comedy shallower and much more of a sham commodity. Again, there is loads of excellent and cunning material, including an Enid Blyton parody and stabs at figures such as Tony Parsons and Ricky Gervais.

Stewart LeeHowever, this gig went seriously wrong for me. From the start I sensed that Mr Lee was much more aggressive than I remembered him. To be fair, the show started unfortunately, as there was obviously a mix-up with tickets held by some audience members that an usher was trying to sort out when Mr Lee walked on stage. He ignored their kerfuffle, but then when another lot of people came in late, he targeted them with total vitriol. It’s a well-worn trick with comedians over the decades to pick on latecomers, but I’ve never seen it done so nastily as by Mr Lee. I understand that is part of his stage persona, but you can go too far.

As the show developed, he called out another audience member for using their phone. “I was just checking that it was turned off” was his explanation; I’ve no way of knowing whether that was true. Then a few minutes later Mr Lee shouted again “TURN THAT PHONE OFF!!!” and I realised he was looking at me. I hadn’t touched my phone, so I looked blankly. “YOU! WITH THE GLASSES!” It was like that moment at school when you were picked on by the vicious teacher for something one of your classmates had done. Mrs Chrisparkle quietly muttered that it might have been my Apple Watch that had turned itself into life. “IS IT YOUR WATCH? DON’T MOVE IT THEN!!” he roared. “SORRY!” I replied, in a not sorry way, more in a Pardon Me for Breathing sort of way. Fortunately, he dropped the conversation then, because if he’d said anything more, I could feel the sarcasm rising within my breath. It wouldn’t have ended well. I would have been ridiculed, felt ashamed, and probably walked out. It would have been an ugly and very non-comedic moment.

But from then on, he lost me. Not only was I concerned about keeping my arm and hand absolutely still lest I offended His Majesty again, but I was also fed up with his whole approach. Look, I am experienced at seeing comedy shows. I get the idea of ridiculing the audience – a bit. But he took it to the nth degree. It reminded me of how James Acaster changed his style to become mean to the audience – and it simply alienates me. You don’t pay good money to be insulted. Moreover, on a few occasions he either lost his way in his act or pretended that he had lost his way, and then heaped all the blame on the audience for putting him off. And the more I sat there, not exactly fuming but with my critical facilities prickling, my main reaction was that I don’t need this kind of stuff in my life.

Stewart Lee againSomething else that completely spoils this show is his constant dissing of other performers. Yes, I understand that he ridicules the society that laps up Ricky Gervais’ style, and sees Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the ultimate innovator, as if no one had ever broken the fourth wall before. But when he lays it on with a trowel, it’s just too much. It’s rancorous, bitter and also feels a bit jealous. There’s an intensely tedious moment where Mr Lee ridicules the concept that Ricky Gervais “says the unsayable” by taking it literally. If he said the unsayable, the noise would come out like “ehh…eeee….cchchchchch…” etc. Point taken. Five minutes later, and he’s still making those childish noises? Most people around me were looking bored as hell. Mrs C had long nodded off – that’s her reaction to stage aggression. Mr Lee takes an idea and then batters it to death. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But by concentrating so heavily on ridiculing other comics, their audiences and his own audience, the evening was just swimming in negative energy, and, frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to end. It’s a shame – Mr Lee is so creative and talented, is a master of the callback and the shaggy dog story, and makes relevant and insightful points to prick pomposity and hypocrisy. But, on the whole, that was an awful night at the theatre. Perhaps I just didn’t get it; perhaps I did and it was a lousy performance. As it’s Stewart Lee, I couldn’t possibly give him one star, there’s too much good content for that. Thank heavens for the Alan Bennett sequence.

Two disappointing for more

Review – Stewart Lee, Much a-Stew About Nothing, Derngate, Northampton, 28th September 2013

Much A Stew About NothingWe’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.

Stewart LeeMr 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.

Stewart Lee againI 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!