Stewart Lee is a comedy magician and long after this lonesome cowboy has skipped your particular town, you’ll still be trying to figure out what exactly it was that you were laughing at and how the hell he made you do it.
The Festival Theatre has a huge stage and Stewart Lee seemed a small and lonely figure, standing with only his microphone for company in this bare space, empty of any of the usual theatrical paraphernalia – no scenery, no fancy lighting, no costumes, no props. He doesn’t even move about much to try to fill the space. But then, he doesn’t need to. Because his first trick of the night was to take the almost breathless anticipation of the audience, add it to his own prodigious stage presence, and thus produce the illusion of close-up intimacy.
Opening with a beautifully placed quip about his material containing references to independence nationalists, ‘the Ukips’ - a ‘bad’ form nationalism, ‘unlike yours, which is the good kind’ – he moved with a deft sleight of hand between several contentious subjects. The first half was largely the sort of shaggy dog story at which he excels, all about him attempting a bit of observational comedy while working the Islamaphobic market to get the Daily Mail off his back. The second half was mostly about his cat, called ‘Paul Nuttalls of the Ukips’, and a range of bodily fluids soiling several England flags.
In his advertising material, Lee has chosen to highlight a particular review entitled ‘Why I walked out of a Stewart Lee gig’ that derided him for his ‘toxic scorn’ towards the audience. There was more of that this evening. Taking this at face value for a minute, when you’ve spent years doing endless live gigs to painstakingly build an audience that ‘gets’ you, his sentiment of ‘if you don’t get it, don’t come’ is actually fair enough. Similarly, his shouting at us to ‘concentrate’ and ‘keep up’ is also fair when you consider that he isn’t just up there telling gags in a vacuum, but engaging with the constantly shifting zeitgeist as filtered through ever-expanding media platforms – and that requires hard work in the form of constant vigilance and continual updates and rewrites. Making some attempt to keep up with him therefore seems the least that we can do.
Of course, taking on the persona of the politically correct liberal allows him to assume this superior, disgruntled air and to play around a bit with the role of the tragic clown. Evoking the ghosts of all the dead comedians who have committed suicide because of the likes of us - some who sit on his right whispering ‘join us, join us’ – he sniped and snarled at his audience of fools for whom he suffers, leaving us in no doubt that he deserves better. Is it an admission of a vaguely sadomasochistic urge to say that this was intensely funny and deeply enjoyable and that far from wanting to leave it left some of us wanting more?
Despite the expanding waistline and the seductively soft and husky voice, Stewart Lee is not a cuddly comedian who will spoon-feed you soupcons of giggly delights while you sit there passively with your mouth open. But neither is he mad, bad or dangerous (and he has been called all of these in his time). He is, however, extremely clever and extraordinarily charismatic and in using these attributes to play the subtext he somehow, in some way, performs his alchemy; turning base elements like the Ukips and urine into pure comedy gold. Ta-Da!
Seen in Edinburgh on 15th March. Lee is touring throughout the UK for the rest of the year. Check his website for details.