Raph Shirley: Philosophical Investigations

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Donnchadh O Conaill

A work of philosophical genius, or just another free stand-up? Ralph Shirley’s 45 minutes is – surprise, surprise – somewhere between the two; it’s better than your average free show, but not quite fully formed.

It’s hard to know whether this is because Raph Shirley hasn’t yet marshalled his ideas under a coherent theme, or whether he has set out to create and exploit a certain degree of disorganisation. He opens the show sitting on stage under a sleeping bag, reads his topics from notes on a music stand, includes footnotes and diary entries in his set, and frames the whole thing as an academic investigation. His delivery is as varied as this ramshackle structure suggests. He deconstructs trite turns of phrase, fires off observations at modern mores, and casually reveals details of his family life while expounding on other topics.

His most recurring technique is one of grand pronouncements undercut by a slyly dropped line, which particularly suits his persona, alternately swaggering and keen to cut himself down to size.

Interesting as Shirley’s on-stage manner is, the material suffers from this scattergun approach. Bizarre and original topics (a scientific experiment which involves spying on his mother; impressions of de Niro and Fry which, in different ways, cleverly spoof the genre) are thrown together with material on religion and faux-impassioned rants at the corporate world which seem to have come from a less inventive comic mind.

There’s plenty of evidence of sharp writing, and Shirley displays no lack of confidence in his skilful self-aggrandisement and his jibes at knowingly controversial stand-ups, but the whole set needs to be sifted through more carefully.

Furthermore, it’s not always clear what the point of the piece is; whether Shirley wants to be an intelligent observational comic, skilfully moving between different topics, or whether he is more interested in subverting the whole enterprise of comedy. Sometimes he manages to bring these approaches together, as in his witty juxtaposition of two well-known jokes featuring the word ‘who’. At other times, his performance style threatens to undermine the impact of what he has to say. Very few of the bits fail to work, but the individual pieces don’t join together to from an individual take on the world.

There’s bundles of potential and ambition here, and evidence of a unique vision, if only it can be brought into focus. As it is, there seem to be two Raph Shirleys on stage. A fusion of the best bits of each would be something to look forward to.

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Published: 29 Aug 2011

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