Stewart Lee: If You Prefer A Milder Comedian Please Ask For One, London run

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Stewart Lee is past it. Ensconced in comfortable middle-age, the essential anger of comedy has deserted him. It’s time for him, at 41, to retire gracefully.

Or so Frankie Boyle would have you believe.

The Mock The Week star’s comments that no stand-up over 40 is funny was the spark that ignited these 90 unforgiving minutes of perfectly-measured sarcasm, using deconstruction, repetition and moral superiority as the sharpened tools with which to slay the very idea.

Boyle’s proposition is conclusively refuted, while he becomes the object of Lee’s scorn, his supposedly controversial line about the Queen’s vagina being meticulously picked apart, revealed as ridiculous under the scrutiny. This is Lee’s usual MO, and it’s as effective today as it has ever been.

The show’s title, as well as serving as a warning for those who like their humour lass challenging to stay away, comes from the sign behind every Caffe Nero counter. It was there that Lee was embarrassed when his loyalty card was refused because of an irregularity in the accumulated stamps.

The incident is typical of the sort of minor irritant that middle-class comics of a certain age – the very people Boyle was presumably thinking about – often build routines around, getting laughs from their impotent fury. Lee proves he can easily fit into this category, though it soon becomes apparent his heart is not in it. He berates us for chuckling at the ‘wrong’ places and subtly highlights the artifice of the supposed rage behind the genre. Never mind the free coffee, he’s certainly having his Danish raisin swirl and eating it….

This show of extended set pieces then moves on to the life expected of a fortysomething parent, skewering the bucolic idea of moving to the country with its cultural malnourishment before moving on to an attack on the unedifying ‘politically incorrect’ ideology as espoused by Top Gear that culminates in a daring piece about Richard Hammond’s near-fatal crash. Here, Lee moves the audience between discomfort and laughter with deceptive ease.

Because they are so distinctive, it’s easy to focus on Lee’s techniques; the deadpan delivery, the constant reiteration of his themes, the aloof demeanour. But there’s also a playfulness that imitators often miss, while the intelligent but unpretentious writing builds skilfully to make punchlines out of the most unexpected places.

Only in his final routine, based on the artistic bankruptcy of advertising executives, is in danger of becoming a parody of his own methodology – but the payoffs are certainly well worth it, and you’ll never watch Mark Watson’s Magners cider ads in quite the same way again.

Comedy in-jokes are, of course, an integral part of the show’s fabric. As well as Boyle, Lee takes pot-shots at the easy target of Michael McIntyre and creates a whole new genus of stand-up: the ‘Russell comedian’. But such asides hit a wider audience, not just the comedy cognoscenti.

In what will come as a surprise to long-term fans – though it’s entirely in keeping with his compulsion to keep the audience out of their comfort zone – Lee ends with a sincere song. It’s a cover version of a Steve Earle track, not a schmaltzy Lee Evans-style number; but it’s enough to show that he still has the capacity to surprise – even at a positively geriatric 41

Review date: 9 Dec 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

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