Mark Steel: What's Going On

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Mark Steel received a glowing – if not entirely welcome – review at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. A fine achievement for someone who didn’t actually perform there.

Where, the critic complained, were the festival shows talking about the big issues: war, climate change, global recession? If Steel had been there, he would surely have the passion and intelligence to tackle these subjects head on…

On stage in Maidenhead, and wearing a burgundy jacket Austin Powers might think twice about, the veteran leftie takes the compliment in the spirit in which it was intended, but worries what sort of message it’s sending out. As a set list, that apocalyptic agenda hardly seems conducive to hilarity. How many laughs are can a falling Hang Seng index really provide?

He’s made unlikely topics funny before, of course. His last show was all about the French Revolution, when he informed and entertained in equal measure despite the bloody nature of the subject.

For the new tour, however, the approach is more scattergun, and the 100-plus minute diatribe certainly loses something from not having a unifying focus.

The one big theme he does have is the dehumanisation of the world. How call centres and globalisation reduce so much social interaction to a mechanical process that can be scripted, monitored, and used to sell more shit. It’s a valid and well-made point – and actually one made by Karl Marx in his Theory of Alienation, cited by Steel – but just one of many strands in the show.

Some of the examples he uses prove very funny – such as a fine section on blind devotion to satnav over common sense – and make a perfect outlet for his irksomeness. He may, after almost 30 years of activism, be resigned to the fact that the world’s going to hell in a handcart, but he can still be righteously peeved about it.

Other routines, however, are too much like mundane moaning. His bitching about train delays, for instance, is little different from the daily grips of a million commuters. It may resonate, but the material doesn’t push beyond the grumblings of any other middle-aged suburbanite.

Talk of trains almost inevitably leads him to his distrust of the modern automated toilets on intercity services. Far from the striking originality that Edinburgh critic had hoped for, Steel is on very well-trodden ground here. It’s even worse when he talks about suicide bombers being rewarded with virgins for their martydom…. and suggesting that sexual experience would surely be better. If I had a virgin for every time I’ve heard that thought, I’d have a hell of a lot more than 72.

But other material he makes his own. Talking of the Cuban revolution recalls the solid ground of the brilliant Mark Steel Lectures, and his tales of the fractious, internectine struggles of the various left-wing organisations he’s been involved with over the years proves reliably entertaining.

He has never lost his socialist credentials, which means doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of the fact he’s performing in the chichi environs of the Royal Borough Of Windsor And Maidenhead. Is he behind enemy lines, or has he found a seditious clique of fellow travellers? He never seems comfortably sure of his audience.

As is de rigeur for the now-aging band of original ‘alternative’ comedians, Steel also addresses his advancing years. He can no longer be the firebrand of his youth, as he finds himself slowly morphing into a Victor Meldrew-style grouch.

Unusually for him, Steel gets more directly personal with his material, touching on the recent break-up of a relationship, leading to nights on the sofa and a changing relationship with his son.

The set is, as always, enlivened with his dyspeptic incredulity at the mess we’re in, and his ability to dip into a surprisingly wide-ranging armoury of accents during his many anecdotes, from Tony Benn to laid-back Jamaican, from David Cameron attempting to speak the patois of youth to an impatient teacher trying to drill information into his pupils.

But the solid performance skills and occasional moments of brilliance can’t completely obscure the hit-and-miss nature of a show that still feels as if it’s still under construction, rather that being a coherent train of thought with consistently strong gags to illustrate it.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Maidenhead, September 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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