FringeReview UK 2017
After four years writing and performing his TV show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Content Provider is Stewart’s first brand new full-length show since the award-winning Carpet Remnant World.
Ok, so first things first: I absolutely love Stewart Lee. I am the absolute embodiment of the repeat, loyal audience member he talks about in every show. I’m the liberal-elite, muesli-munching, Remain-voting, over-educated, politically articulate lefty that he addresses every time.
And I know that because he acknowledges us.
While doing the same routine.
He talks about how one part of the audience is “getting it”, while another mostly consists of people’s friends who’ve ended up here by mistake, and aren’t quite bright enough.
It’s funny, and it deservedly gets laughs. But I think this is the fourth time I’ve seen it and, to be honest, it sort of sours the beginning of the show for me.
Don’t get me wrong; what follows is typically brilliant. He tackles the problem of our absurd political dramas and the impossibility of generating relevant material quickly enough head on, and with characteristic wit.
There are, predictably, stand-out moments of true genius.
On the tricky subject of wondering who in his audience might help make up the 52% of Brexit voters he ponders the dangers of being glassed in the face in Lincoln by a man “…with the text of Amber Rudd’s immigration speech tattooed on his erect racist penis”.
He muses on how the modern trendy acceptance of S&M fits into our disposable culture; how in the thirties his grandparents whittled gimp masks from potato sacks, but they meant so much more than a bit of kinky kit from Amazon.
Lee talks about his inability to sell out and go on panel shows on Sky, not just because he’d hate it, but the character he’s created would hate it even more. “I’d love to go on Sky!” he bemoans. “I hate Stewart Lee! And I hate this meta-textual, self-referential s**t”.
When I talk about recycling content, I’m most definitely not talking about the ingeniously clever re-use of the same phrase at the beginning of the first half when talking about Brexit, and then at the beginning of the second when discussing Trump. And I’m definitely not referring to standing on stage and repeating the same line over and over which, as you will see, I adore.
Lee is often scathing about other, lighter, comedians with populist appeal. This is interesting because, though he is certainly in character to some extent, it’s also self-evidently true that nothing in Live at the Apollo comes even remotely close to matching the brilliance of any of Stewart Lee’s material. However I think he gets away with it, and here’s why.
Stewart Lee is, as he regularly reminds us, getting older. Not only does this mean that he’s actually quite good at this by now, his age also frees him from the self-aware longing to be cool of a younger comedian. Lee is deeply silly.
Nowhere is this all summed up better than a five-minute routine in which all he does is stand on stage aping the earnest voice of an imagined young comedian saying “Uh Mate, what’re you having a go at Russell Howard for mate?” over and over and over again. His voice is actually quite close to those he is mocking, but nevertheless descends into utterly ridiculous clowning.
This, for me, is where Stewart Lee really shines. He is unafraid to make a fool of himself. He is confident enough to know when to simply stand on stage pulling a face, making silly noises, and, crucially, understands when the audience will go with him. This is a beautiful moment, that can only work with a live audience present.
It feels churlish to damn such excellence with faint praise, but really, why recycle so much material? The show wouldn’t be any worse for being ten minutes shorter. If you’ve never seen Stewart Lee before then please, please do. He really is a five-star act. But for me, I’d have been content provided Stewart Lee had provided more of the original content.