Al Murray: Giving It Both Barrels

Note: This review is from 2003

Review by Steve Bennett

Al Murray's fame has never been greater. Is it because of the decade or more he's spent honing his craft has finally led to recognition of his talents? No, it's because he can rustle up a decent fish pie despite the offputting presence of a tetchy bullyboy cook. Such is celebrity.

Still, for all the new fans Hell's Kitchen has brought him, the Giving It Both Barrels show is a fair introduction to what the Pub Landlord is capable of. On the other hand, fans who have stuck with him for longer may be left disappointed with the lack of ambition. His live shows are now starting to follow a formula. A winning formula, but a formula nonetheless.

His key party piece is always the audience banter, at which he remains the unrivalled king. Like all the best barmen, he effortlessly juggles all his customers' wants and quirks, flitting between them all, remembering past conversations and never leaving anyone unattended for too long.

In previous shows, such fast and sharp adlibbing has been the gateway for some equally inspired prepared material, but here it remains a self-contained showcase, apropos of nothing. After telling everyone – well, everyone except Fritz – that they have a 'beautiful British name' he simply savages them, and brilliantly so. Somehow he can call someone 'a workshy piece of shit' and not cause offence.

His now-familiar character is of a small-minded Little Englander, so it's no surprise that he deals in stereotypes of the broadest kind. One punter is depicted as a flamboyantly camp homosexual, Fritz as a warmongering German, a third derided for being a fat bloke.

It flits dangerously close to old school, but saved from that fate by Murray's ability to write new, often very funny, gags from the tired old prejudices, which the lazier older generation never thought to do.

From a marketing perspective, Murray's currently riding the nationalist wave you can sense everywhere from Euro 2004 matches to the emergence of the UKIP. When, choking up with pride, he wipes away a tear with a St George cross handkerchief, the cheer is deafening.

But whatever his protests of parody, he's also tacitly endorsing the other, much more unpleasant, side of that nationalistic coin. We would wage war on China, he says, but there are 'not enough bullets' to slaughter them all.

In this show, less than in previous ones, the fact that the Pub Landlord's bigotry stems from ignorant attempts to compensate for his own inadequacies is not made clear. Before, passing mentions of his broken marriage and estranged son gave the character depth, sympathy even. Now these aspects of the persona have been all-but abandoned, rendering him more two-dimensional, more cartoon-like.

But Murray's caught in the horns of a dilemma: to be popular must he be populist? When he punctures the hypocrisy of the Daily Mail mindset, the material has real bite, but when he reinforces it, the laughs are, depressingly, bigger. When he stomps around proudly proclaiming himself a 'normal, decent, lawabiding, honest taxpayer - who doesn't want to pay his speeding fines' the reaction is relatively muted compared to his apparent, irony-free endorsement of trigger-happy Norfolk farmer Tony Martin.

His big set piece at the end, though, is the only real disappointment. After batting a giant inflatable globe around the auditorium, as if this were Glastonbury, Murray proceeds to go through each nation in turn tossing out a suitable insult for each. Every nation, that is, except for those in Africa – which get only one gag for the whole continent.

The jokes are a mix of the great and the not-so-good, but essentially we've seen all this before from Murray – and usually with more inspiration and better consequences. It's almost as if he's doing the groundwork for an easy Christmas cash-in book – The Al Murray Atlas Of The World – rather than producing a show of lasting value.

Murray's too clever a writer and too assured a performer to ever turn in a bad gig, but with Giving It Both Barrels, the landlord is committing the publican's biggest sin: watering down his product.

Steve Bennett
London
June 2004

Review date: 1 Jan 2003
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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