Simon Amstell in Montreal

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Like many comedians, Simon Amstell uses stand-up to conquer social inadequacies: somehow feeling more comfortable sharing intimacies with a roomful of strangers, where he can rehearse what he says, than he is one-to-one.

That’s not just cod psychology, because where the now ex-Buzzcocks host differs from the comedy pack is that he uses his stage time to positively wallow in those personality defects. He is disarmingly honest about his inabilities to interact normally in the world in this thoughtful hour, which is not so much a knock-em-dead gagathon as the navel-gazing confessions of an inadequate human.

Amstell presents every failing as unique to him. Only partly in jest does he refer to himself the ‘genius recluse’ too delicate to cope with the cruel world. But, of course, his admissions turn out to be much more relatable than that. He’s not the first person to get tongue-tied in the presence of someone he fancies or cursed himself for missing out on the joys of life because he’s too buttoned-up to seize the moment.

This show charts his ineffective attempts to snare Mr Right: someone who ought to be a thin, vulnerable youth who – very specifically – resembles My So-Called Life actor Jared Leto. But, like the carefully controlled environment of stand-up, he’s more at home with an entirely fantasy relationship than he is with any of that tiresome bother of actually getting to know another person.

On a comedy circuit where character flaws are usually packaged into neat set-ups, Amstell’s account is very personal and he has to reassure the audience that: ‘Laughter is better than pity’. Bearing his soul means it’s not gag-a-minute stuff but a more ponderous take on what it’s like to be human – so even when there is a typically dry self-effacing quip, the audience aren’t always entirely sure whether he’s serious or not.

Although his Jewish family provides some fodder, the gags mostly come from Amstell’s almost limitless self-absorption, which means he overanalyses his every move. He’s got a raging ego, but also the agonising awareness of how he really appears. He simultaneously seems much less mature than his 29 years, while having the wisdom of a much older man which means he’s painfully aware of the fact. It sounds like a torment out of the Greek classics.

A few weeks ahead of its Edinburgh premiere, this show still seems a little disjointed, in need of a bit of structural tidying up. Amstell’s encounter with the real Leto, for example, seems something of an afterthought, while a callback in which he echoes his grandmother is almost undetectable.

But in an intimate, late-night cabaret setting, his personal insight is certainly worth hearing – and often worth laughing at, too.

Review date: 27 Jul 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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