Monday, April 21, 2008

Stewart Lee at Pocklington Arts Centre

Despite a thoroughly miserable week, last night Molly was packed off to a sleepover and Louise and I headed off to see:

Stewart Lee
The 41st Best Stand Up Ever
@ Pocklington Arts Centre.

I remember Stuart Lee like this:

But I'm sure he'll understand when I say that, like all of us over a certain age, his profile has slipped somewhat, so that this is nearer what we saw on stage last night:

Of course, this is no surprise really to a man described many years ago as "a crumpled Morrissey" but more recently as "a squashed Albert Finney".

But enough on looks.
The actual show.

First onstage was Stuart Lee himself, acting as a warm up for his own support act. Interesting idea and it worked. He spent a very funny 5 minutes recounting a recent doorstepping by some religious nutter or other:
"If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?"
Then he proceeds to recount a long list of his answers (Type of sandals favoured by hippies? obscure 80s band The Blank & Mary Chain?) before admitting that, like most of us he just mumbled something about not being interested and then thought of all these great comebacks later. A good start. (Although strangely I could hear Eddie Izzard doing it and ending by telling us he had an hours worth of these and that this is the entire show.)

Support act was Henning Wehn, a german comic who's been living in Britain for the past 6 years. His act was a clever play on the concepts of cultural identity, specifically taking the stereotype of the German lacking a sense of humour and mercilessly playing on it.
The British always say we Germans don’t have a sense of humour. Well, I don’t find that funny.
From then on it was a good set featuring Wehn's take on football (So, what will you be doing in June?), the role of women and even managing to get a quiet crowd chuckling guiltily over his effortless abuse of the Cloggies and those job shy communist scum from East Germany.

Stewart Lee's main set was a 70 minute affair that centred on his recent unveiling as the "41st best stand up of all time" in one of those Channel 4 list shows. It seems Stewart's mom has never really been all that proud of her comedian son and this was almost the accolade he needed to prove his worth. Except Stewart's mom knows who the greatest stand up of all time was: she saw Tom O'Connor on a cruise ship about ten years ago and he did this great gag about Sardines.

He takes us through the inherent humour in his mom's obsession with O'Conner, and her love of quilting (Quillows - a quilt and a pillow apparently). Moves on to take in a hilarious rant on the Big Brother racism fiasco including the insanity of the press release that followed the main sponser pulling out stating: "racism is totally at odds with the values of the Carphone Warehouse". Lee continues the attack, building up to include first Russell Brand, then Channel 4, then all TV in his bile. Lee's own experiences with Television have never really ended well and the Big Brother fiasco coincided with his own prospective comedy series being dumped by the Beeb. So an attack on Channel 4 betraying it's high concept roots becomes an excuse to attack TV in general. Although you can see his point really, especially as the proposed 6 part series that was promised and then cruelly withdrawn meant Lee performing aphid based material in front of 300 entymologists wearing a £500 insect costume as part of a free gig that he'd only agreed to do so that he could secretly film it and include it as part of the now canceled TV show.

Stewart Lee doesn't necessarily do traditional gags and he certainly doesn't do that many of them in 70 minutes. His act is all about staring the audience in the eye and challenging them to see the humour in what he says. It's all about the comedy of repetition. The same lines, repeating themes, over and over, daring the audience to discover the humour. On top of this there's the tension that he injects into a show. Several times during the show he quietly chastised Pocklington for not responding all that fast to his material and failing miserably to get the parody of observational comedy he was attempting.
Another recurring theme of the night, along with his mother's disappointment in his career was his own despair at where he was going. He's at pains to point out that his career has gone in cycles, but has never really attained the heights he was seemingly promised. He takes great delights in regaling us with the tales of what might have been until he slowly drops the mic to the floor, stands there before us, dejected and beaten down as we watch nervously for what is to come next. Which is when he goes walkabout, his voice projecting across the full Arts Centre, bemoaning as he does it that if he were any more successful, like he should be, he wouldn't even be here. We'd all have to travel the ten or so miles to York to see him somewhere bigger and better. And then he starts on his weight and how he's suffered for it in weightwatchers, particularly when faced with a Muslim woman and an Orthodox Jew debating hair regimes whilst he's in the line to get weighed. All very edgy stuff, designed to have the audience squirming. And it works. Of course, it's all part of the show. Just like telling off the audience for not keeping up. But at the time, it's difficult to tell. Because he delivers it with venom and despair in equal measure.
It was a great show and yet, even at the very end when completely throwing the audience a curve by signing off with a truly sweet tale of parenting and making his newborn son laugh he couldn't resist letting the joke sit for longer than was really comfortable just to see who'd blink first in this comedy test of nerve.

Stewart Lee may not be the easiest comic to watch, he may not be the funniest (certainly not to his Mom anyway). But he's an masterclass in how to really work a joke and an audience.

I'm sure he's hoping it's York next time, but Pocklington Arts Centre would welcome him back anytime.

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