Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Comedy vehicle stuck in third gear


We begin with an unexpected treat. Discovering Simon Munnery is this evening's support act is rather like buying a Kit-Kat and discovering there's no wafer and it's just solid chocolate all the way through. Credit to Stewart Lee for continuing to champion his old Attention Scum! chum.

A smattering of the material is familiar from his Cellar show last year, and since then there's clearly been no sudden deviation away from his offbeat and intellectual style into facile observational comedy - a point underlined when he asks: "Anyone from anywhere? Anyone ever noticed anything?"

His is a clever kind of silliness in which surrealism is never an end in itself (unlike The Mighty Boosh, for instance) but instead serves a higher satirical purpose. Sacred cows are routinely slaughtered and minced up - he pretends his fist is Richard Dawkins and conducts a debate on dogmatism, and later takes issue with John Lennon: "'Imagine there's no heaven / It's easy if you try'. But nothing's easy if you have to try..." Dylan fans would probably wince at his tribute song at the end of the show, too.

Munnery will be back here on Saturday, appearing alongside Lee's former comedy cohorts Richard Herring and Kevin Eldon. It's like the noughties never happened.

Unlike Attention Scum!, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle has been granted a second series, and, aside from some bits about Gary Lineker and the IRA recycled from Stand-Up Comedian and 90s Comedian respectively, Vegetable Stew is essentially Lee roadtesting new material ahead of recording. In the manner of someone giving a corporate presentation, Lee begins by outlining the three topics he'll be covering: "charity, Adrian Chiles and the government".

After a couple of delicious amuse-bouches (the US criticising the head of BP over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is compared to "a client punching a prostitute in the face for trying to satisfy their desires"), we're into the first course. Lee applauds Russell Howard for helping to raise millions of pounds by taking part in the sponsored cycle ride for Sport Relief - but then accuses him of selfishly persisting with his stand-up and television appearances in the knowledge that he could be spending the time continuing to cycle and fundraise instead. Typical Lee - logic taken to extremes.

Ever the discerning comedy critic (or comedy snob to his detractors), Lee has some choice words about Mock The Week and its regular guests, who "only stop to do an advert voiceover and spit on a child with Downs syndrome" (he may be exaggerating for effect, folks), and BBC1's Comedy Roadshow: "Alternative comedy used to be about people who hated the Tories going to see someone say they hate the Tories, and saying it was 67p well spent. Now it seems to be people who hate electrical appliances going to see someone say they hate electrical appliances, and saying it was £47.50 well spent".

Meanwhile, I'll not be able to look at Adrian Chiles again without thinking of him as "a Toby jug filled with hot piss". This, incidentally, is not a routine Lee's expecting to make the cut for the TV show, given that it constitutes "a sustained personal attack" under new BBC guidelines...

David Cameron and his Bullingdon Club chums are next in the firing line, an offensive that seems particularly appropriate given where we are but which is weakened by the fact that Lee pulls the very same trick as he did at the end of the Richard Hammond routine during last year's show. His appreciation for and devotion to the art of repetition (a trait only to be expected of a Krautrock aficionado) is well known - but to trot out exactly the same punchline for two different routines?

I suppose, though, we should really be savouring the journey rather than expectantly awaiting arrival at the destination, and most of us will overlook this recycling. While he might have correctly characterised the Oxford audience as "trusting", we nevertheless remain unpredictable even to this keen comedy technician. He's baffled to discover that references to regional vegetable retail and the tactic of putting antiques on public display as a tax dodge glean guffaws as loud as anything else.

The show climaxes, as did If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One, with musical performance. The critic who disparaged Lee's "ill-advised new direction" should have known that those words would only spur him on towards becoming "a completely musical act by 2015". As he acidly observes, audiences are more forgiving of poor jokes if a guitar is present - and, in truth, that's subsequently put to the test. The problem with the songs (about the Bullingdon Club, Christine Bleakley and the poor) is twofold: firstly, they're not in themselves particularly good, and secondly, they demand that Lee shelves the delivery style for which he's most revered (and, it must be said, loathed).

It makes for a disappointing end to what is by his own standards a slightly patchy hour and a half (a stew indeed, chucked together quite roughly), and while it would be odd to complain about the overall pace of a Lee show, this one has felt a little baggy and slack rather than carefully composed and controlled. It's not as though Lee's comedy vehicle has been running on empty - rather that it's been stuck in third gear, when we were hoping to be mown down.

(A note for the Regal: please please please sort out the lighting on the upper balcony. While it was darker and more atmospheric downstairs, upstairs it was still so bright it was giving me a headache. Tickets are the same price, I think, so why treat those of us up on high as second-class citizens?)

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