‘No one is equipped to review me,’ stated Stewart Lee on Thursday evening at the Hall for Cornwall. That isn’t going to stop me trying.
He entered the stage (complete with two flags of St. Piran, as the day dictated) in front of a sell-out crowd, and proceeded to explain his set-list. Half an hour of anti-Islamic observational comedy, about forty minutes on urine, quick interval, and then a piece on nationalism. The bad kind, of course, not the good Cornish kind.
Suppose you went to see a magician, but with each moment, they explained how the trick worked. It would be disastrous, the joy is not knowing how it has been done. Yet Lee, in a Brechtian theatrical tradition, deconstructs his comedy throughout, exposes the mechanics of the work, strips it down to its components, and shows the quality of each individual moment in his superb two-hour set. The “how” is every bit as enjoyable as the result.
Lee is unlike many other comedians, whether feigning anger with his audience, helpless looks to a (presumably absent?) stage manager, questioning the crowd’s ability to appreciate comedy, yet the experience of watching is no less enjoyable. Whilst simultaneously appearing to issue with the crowd, he absolutely played to us, making fun of our dear ‘Fascist Utopia,’ Cornwall. Interwoven with these moments, his politics shines through, with his routines working as insightful and topical allegories. The rise of UKIP from entertaining lunatic fringe to altogether more sinister lunatics was particularly astute, as well as being hysterically funny.
He is a remarkable performer, and a master of his craft: particularly apparent on a perfectly stressed ‘Rochester and Stroud.’ Not every joke landed, some weren’t great, but his ability to immediately pass comment on how and why they didn’t always resulted in a laugh. It was precise, forensic comedy, which had my head aching with laughter at points, yet always made me think. Perhaps his most “Brechtian” success was that his audience didn’t ‘[hang] its brains up in the cloakroom along with its coat.’ No one passively watched; his audience hung on his every word.
His self-awareness, the impeccable commentary throughout, his heated interaction with the audience, and even explaining the content of the show right at the beginning, all served to remind us that we were watching stand-up. That distance, I think, had us considering the content all the more. Particularly pertinently, in one of the most genuine and truthful moments in his performance, Lee reminded us, “But you must vote. You absolutely must vote.”
Thanks for coming Stew, and please head back soon. Also, you were absolutely right to call it the ‘Furry Dance,’ and got the tune bang on. Whoever shouted out ‘Floral Dance,’ hang your head in shame. On our national day too. The good kind of nationalism, of course.
P.S. – If you have a spare fifty-five minutes, and are a fan of Stewart Lee, this is well worth a watch.