At Last! The 1981 Show
Revisiting the past can be as painful as it can be nostalgic and this showcase of the most anarchic and cult punk comedians, assembled by Stewart Lee from the dawn of the alternative circuit, occasionally verged on excruciating.
London’s South Bank Centre is a world removed from the smoky clubs where these comics first found their feet, and although Alexei Sayle and Stewart Lee may be accustomed to the finery of theatre surroundings, there were a few acts who struggled to live up to the promise of the grand venue and the expectations of the somewhat aged audience.
Yet despite the predictable bumps of 'hack' material when some of the acts pulled out their 30-year-old material, this retro showcase was a spectacle worth seeing. It's not often you get to witness a comedian doing material that is older than some of their audience, and it served as an interesting reminder of the roots of the alternative – and now mainstream – acts of today.
Some of these old hands are still very much involved in the industry now, with Arthur Smith proving an assured and entertaining host for the first section. His Leonard Cohen impression was slightly self indulgent, but his wit and delivery is just as sharp as it was back in the Eighties.
Up first was Nigel Planner as Nicholas Craig, the actor. This monologue was overextended, but performed with charm and skill, and featured little nuggets of updated material and techniques. It was a strange choice of opening act, but much more successful than his Neil The Folk Singer character, who made a heckle-heavy appearance later in the show.
The return of The Oblivion Boys was more of a lesson on how stand-up can age than anything else. The once-brilliant Stephen Frost and Mark Arden reunited after 15 years to produce some rather ropey pull-back-to-reveal punchlines in some under-rehearsed scripts, during which each of them talked over the other’s punchlines. This was not aided by the echoing sound in the cavernous Royal Festival Hall adding to the sometimes incoherent delivery.
Following their high energy came the underplayed brilliance of Norman Lovett, who really got the first big laughs of the night with his gentle and hilarious musings about everyday items he'd found backstage. Lovett managed to inject the sense of intimacy into the gig that you may have felt back in one of those smoky, sticky-floored clubs of the Eighties. A true master of his craft with the confidence to downplay what must have been one of his biggest gigs in a decade. Genuinely brilliant.
From subtle, quiet observation to the manic and riotous Greatest Show On Legs minus the late, great Malcolm Hardee who got a huge round of applause when Arthur Smith paid tribute to him in his introduction. Hardee's place was taken up by Bob Slayer who threw himself into the anarchic, chaos of refereeing the brilliantly performed 'mime-off' with gusto. One of the highlights of the show came in the form of the famous balloon dance which led to shrieks of laughter from the audience and some full frontal nudity onstage. A fittingly outlandish and unconventional way to end the first section.
Andrew Bailey and Cindy Oswin opened the second third with what is now an old trick but done with the panache of experts. Bailey plays Lenin addressing his comrades, with Oswin providing the translation, in a very amusing skit with some nice Left wing nods, as befitting the revolutionary spirit which spawned alternative comedy.
Announcing that he was only there to lend historical validity to the night Alexei Sayle, the Comedy Store’s first resident compere, took the reigns as host for the second section. He was greeted with huge applause and despite stating that he has not performed stand-up in more than 15 years, he commands the stage like he has never been away. His anecdotes about voiceover work and his run-ins with Scousers have the audience rapt. It’s a real treat to see one of the comic forces of the Eighties return to the stage with the same passion and skill as his heyday.
Pauline Melville retired her character Eydie the Radical Housewife 30 years ago, but dusted off the beige-draped creation especially for this event - and despite the overtly scripted delivery, she updated the character well, making insightful topical observations about the Big Society alongside some delightfully silly quips about BBC newsreaders.
Alas Arnold Brown failed to follow her example and his material was very much what you would have expected to hear in the old clubs. A true great of his day Brown just didn't seem on form tonight with a sluggish, tired feel to his set, the energy started to sap from the room. There were a couple of nice one liners dotted around the tedious and outdated stereotypes that Scots and Jews are tight with money.
Their was an air of anticipation at the end of the interval with chatter in the audience about whether or not Stewart Lee would host the final section; and there was huge applause when he took to the stage to do just that. He started with some Tory bashing with a typical Lee twist which went down beautifully with his adoring fans. Sadly he then chose to do material about his previous job as a librarian which is excellently executed but its impact was lost on an audience who would have seen the same sketch on his Comedy Vehicle earlier in the week. It is a superb piece of material but it seemed an odd choice to perform it so close to its national TV broadcast.
In contrast Kevin McAleer presented us with a set that was performed on Friday Night Live decades ago, the opening of which has remained completely unchanged and got the biggest response of the night. His slide show of weird and surreal photos accompanied by his lyrical Irish storytelling was the highlight of the night. Most of his set was spent waiting for people to finish laughing. Absolute hilarity took over the vast hall and he looked impossible to follow.
This was evident when punk poet/comedian John Cooper Clarke left the audience a little cold with his rants and ravings about everything from the criminally insane to hire cars. Clarke very much had the air of someone who thought the crowd were there to see him specifically, not helped by a couple of members of the audience requesting specific poems. He laughed more at his material than the audience did and it was a sad dip in the energy McAleer had injected into the room.
Who could headline such a night? Lee chose Japanese musical surrealists Frank Chickens, the obscure Perrier nominees whom inadvertently returned to the comedy spotlight last year.
Like a cross between physical theatre, a pop group and a comedy spoof, Frank Chickens perform several incoherent but ultimately enjoyable 80-style numbers. The joy is in the weird spectacle of how the now large ensemble choreograph themselves around the stage. Incredibly bizarre and something that has to be seen to be believed. Even weirder is when the cast of the show join them for a big finale. Watching Stewart Lee, Norman Lovett et al try to copy some 80s Japanese pop dancing was worth the admission fee alone.
And just when we thought it was all over Chris Lynam appeared to announce his trademark striptease and firework-up-his arse routine. It is hard to tell if this has been pre-arranged or whether it is a spur of the moment, anarchic turn. But the audience are tiring and Lynham is jarring. Numerous people leave as Lynam starts to strip off. Again the spectacle is worth watching, but it's not particularly entertaining or funny and dampens the mood at the end of what was a mixed bag of retro acts.
But then ‘wildly inconsistent’ is probably a fair representation of bills on those early days of alternative comedy.