On the fifth anniversary of Mark E. Smith’s death (as the music in the St David’s Hall auditorium pre-show reminds us), it seems fitting to have assembled to watch Stewart Lee at work. Himself (or at least his onstage persona) an acerbic, cantankerous maverick and alternative national treasure prone to unpredictable outbursts, Lee is like a comedy tribute act to the Fall frontman.
Reviewing a Stewart Lee gig is a perilous business. Express bafflement or irritation, and you risk sounding like those audience members he mocks for having been dragged along by their friends, who are subsequently disappointed to discover that he doesn’t deal in the sort of fluff that flies on Live At The Apollo. But react with enthusiasm and praise for the sharpness of his mind and wit, or try to analyse what exactly he’s doing, and you can potentially come across like the (inevitably male) fawning fans and critics he satirises for wanging on about “genius” and “performance art”.
Mock-contempt for paying punters is just one of the by-now established staples of a Stewart Lee show. Others include riffs on the self-deprecating comment on his appearance, “I know what you’re thinking: XX has let himself go” (the one that opens tonight’s second half is a gem); reflections on, and comically forensic dissection of, the mechanics of stand-up itself; and barbed comments about other comics (the dig at former double-act partner Richard Herring is indicative of a complete souring of relations).
For long-time fans, even some of the material in Basic Lee is familiar. The show begins with a barely modified routine about a Jehovah’s Witness (“Jesus is the answer – what is the question?”) first heard in 1989, and ends with a great grandad gag of similar vintage. Lee loves a callback, and personally, I’m delighted to see him performing hits from his back catalogue in a far grander setting than the dingy back room of a pub or a tent at Glastonbury.
But perhaps this is being too generous. Some people will inevitably interpret this as laziness on Lee’s part, and even I – fanboy though I undoubtedly am – have to concede that Basic Lee isn’t perfect. There’s too much slack in the second half, for instance, and no real satisfying climax – certainly no spectacularly memorable meltdown about a pear cider that’s made from 100% pear. One of the biggest laughs comes courtesy of a Barry Cryer joke.
So, I know what you’re thinking: has Stewart Lee let himself go?
Well, no. Basic Lee contains a brilliant routine on J. K. Rowling in which he playfully toys with audience expectations while making a point, and an inspired diversion on imaginary jazz music; he shows he can still write topical satire savaging sitting ducks like Nadhim Zahawi and Therese Coffey, the phrasing of which is light years beyond anything the Mock The Week mob would be capable of; and there’s a brief segment on Prince Andrew that has me struggling to breathe for laughter.
The tour is only in its infancy, and there’s every likelihood that the show will get stronger and tighter through repeat performance. Tonight, Basic Lee is not Lee at his absolute best – but in a sea of identikit stand-ups he remains peerless.
Stewart Lee, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Tue 24 Jan
words BEN WOOLHEAD
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