Johnson and Boswell: Late But Live

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

In 1773, legendary curmudgeon Samuel Johnson and high-living biographer James Boswell toured the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, both writing accounts of their experiences. It’s not, perhaps, the most obviously hilarious starting point for an achingly funny theatre piece – but that’s exactly what the result turned out to be.

It was devised by Stewart Lee, and with Simon Munnery stealing the show as acidly grumpy Johnson, the show evokes one of their most artistically successful former collaborations: The League Against Tedium’s Attention Scum.

The arrogantly superior Johnson tosses out savagely cutting put-downs towards the Scottish nation when he returns to present-day Edinburgh to relaunch his travelogue. He’s the ultimate urban sophisticate, a poverty tourist among these miserable Celts who exploits his unhappiness at being away from London in a relentless tirade of brilliantly savage, beautifully aimed gripes.

Edinburgh-born Boswell is his host and scribe – dutifully recording every delightful bon mot and putting up a meek defence of his homeland, which only prompts more delicious bile to pour forth from his friend. The decidedly English Miles Jupp plays this part, and aside from the nationality, provides a perfect humanising foil to Johnson’s biting insults.

‘A full working knowledge of the texts is essential for the enjoyment of this show,’ he intones sombrely at the start. Nonsense, of course, a full, working sense of humour is all you require. The show’s sensibilities are decidedly 21st Century comedy club, rather than 18th Century coffee house, thanks to a knowing, razor-sharp script.

To call it theatre is, perhaps, a little ambitious, even if they have got posh period costumes. Save for a playful recreation of a tempest Boswell describes – and rather differently than Johnson recalls – this is at heart a stand-up double-act, with the pair trading tetchy below-the-belt jibes, until the bullying behind the banter becomes apparent.

But, even then, the gags keep coming. There really is no reprise from the brilliantly funny lines, creating an onslaught even the most savage ocean storm would struggle to match.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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