FringeReview UK 2016
Back by popular demand Stewart returns to Brighton following previous sell-out visits with fresh material in preparation for his next BBC2 series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. See it live now weeks ahead of transmission!
“Noone is equipped to review me”, snarls Stewart Lee barely five minutes into his set. But then he would say that.
Stewart Lee (the standup) seems to be a creation of Stewart Lee (the man). A broiling, seething cocktail of misanthropy, misunderstood genius, and mis-directed, selfrighteous fury, he would naturally expect me to get it wrong.
Stewart Lee (the standup) patiently explains the format for the evening. He makes it clear that we don’t have to have an encore; actually this show is comparatively good financial value without one. He even says quite clearly (albeit casually) that he’s going to pretend to be horrible to us.
But it’s still a shock when it comes.
Noone is exempted from his ire. Even though I’ve seen him before, even though I’ve watched all his recorded shows, even I was too intimidated to get my phone out to make notes after his scathing dissection of how utterly tiresome people in their thirties are with their phones. I was left scribbling in pencil on the back of my ticket.
In the dark.
I still can’t understand what I wrote.
The reason all of this works, the secret dark heart of Stewart Lee is this: it’s all just a teeny tiny bit real. Let me explain.
Although David Brent wasn’t really Ricky Gervais, we all know that noone else could have played him. Similarly Stewart Lee (the standup) isn’t really Stewart Lee (the man), but he also isn’t completely removed. He’s a caricature; a grotesque. And he’s also a mirror. With the license of the professional fool, he says the things we aren’t allowed to.
“I don’t want any more earlytwenties men in shirts coming to my shows!” he screams at some early-twenties men in shirts. “Practically all of popular culture’s for you isn’t it? This is all there is for everyone else!”
I would probably fight to deny that I would ever think these things, but I’d be lying. Stewart Lee (the stand-up) is the embodiment of middle-class, liberal, educated fury, but without the typical middle-class, liberal, educated trait of remaining quiet and well-behaved.
Stewart Lee (the stand-up) has none of his audience’s concerns.
“F**king stupid c**ts!” he bellows to a couple as they leave while he recounts the comics he’s known who’ve killed themselves (as an explanation of why we should be laughing more). “This not good enough for you? Seen this before have you? A man having a fake breakdown on stage as he describes his dead friends? Not ‘real’ enough for you?”
Yeah, this is black comedy.
The thing is: people are walking out. And every time they do it makes it all more funny; more real. Without these (comparatively frequent) disruptions it’d be too self-indulgent, but right up to the end there are people who somehow decide that this bit is the point past which they cannot possibly remain, despite the raucous laughter all around them. They must be thinking that we’re all idiots.
So it really is edgy. It really is challenging. Sure, some of us are here because we know what to expect, but there are many who genuinely can’t hack it.
But for all the angry bluster, the show is strewn with jokes. Lee mentions “…orienteering with Napalm Death”. I can’t even type that without laughing. One of my favourite moments was a throw-away aside. Lee was mentioning the seventies and said something like: “Yeah, ‘cause of the weather. Remember weather? Not going to end well is it?”
But my favourite moment, as cheesy as it sounds, was his undisguisable warmth and gratitude as he said goodbye. Stewart Lee (both) could never wink, but he kind of does. He kind of acknowledges that we’ve been through something together, and it was funny, and silly, and isn’t that nice?
This strange combination of faux-sincerity with utter stupidity, absurdist one-liners and coruscating abuse makes Stewart Lee the most surprising, original and important comic working today. We’re laughing at him, we’re laughing at them, we’re laughing at us, and it’s horrible and wonderful all at once.
Please Sir, can I have some more?
Reviewed by Tom Beesley