Paul Merton's Out Of My Head

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s billed as Paul Merton’s first stand-up show this century, and a look at the mental health issues that led to a well-publicised six-week stay at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital. Neither of these things are quite true of Out Of My Head, but then nailing down a precise definition of this raggedy show is like stapling yoghurt to a flywheel.

For a star of the telly, it’s an courageous move to stretch beyond straightforward gags, or even the improv which he still practises each week at the Comedy Store. He adds a narrative of sort, sketches, songs, and all the trapping of old-fashioned variety in a bid to move out of his comfort zone. In that, he has succeeded – for he certainly seems quite uncomfortable.

He clings to chunks of decades-old stand-up like flotsam from the shipwreck of his ambition. Gags from his Eighties routine provide safety amid many of the more poorly-considered pieces. These jokes are delivered with a lecture-like detachment, but that was always his way. And talking of dated material. he even revives some ancient Max Miller gags, which still work after all these years.

In the improv moments, he shines. With the aid of Comedy Store Players Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and his missus Suki Webster, he shoehorns a couple of proven games into the show, such as the three-headed expert, hilariously explaining penguin ski-jumping, one word at a time. But it’s jemmied into a section about his treatment for depression. Just as he begins to draw us in with witty anecdotes based on real life on the wards, he retreats somewhere safe and silly

At other times, potentially fascinating storytelling about his stint in the hospital gives way to dreamily surreal set pieces, such as illuminated rabbits dancing in the darkness. It may reflect his confused state of mind, but it’s strange viewing, and not helped by its position alongside a few clunky, amateur sketches. A doctor gets his brain out and prods the ‘obnoxious gland’. ‘Welcome to Top Gear’ intones Merton. That’s the sort of quality we get. Then we’re in Dragon’s Den. Why? No reason.

Merton may be a scholar of comedy history, but the Charles and Camilla sketch has the feeling of a Cambridge Footlights reject from 1963, when students seemed daring for letting their deference slip even slightly. His interest in comic heritage also informs the music hall aesthetics of the show, right down to the graphic design. But turns like the ventriloquist’s doll representing the ten-year-old him seem like a gimmicky prop, rather than an integral part of the action, especially when the likes of Nina Conti are using the supposedly dying art to properly explore the human psyche. And why the ‘swear alarm’ is there, heaven only knows.

Merton is one of comedy’s great reactors. He’s the one who disrupts the intellectual flow of Have I Got News For You with just a sardonic raise of the eye, or subverts improv exercises by reminding us how ridiculous it is – defying the received wisdom that improvisers must always reinforce the premise. Yet when he’s in the driving seat, with nothing to react against, it’s like a drunk in charge of a dodgem, banging into all sorts of jokes and ideas but never getting anywhere.

For all the flaws, the show is strangely watchable. That’s in part down to Merton himself, and his wry bemusement even at substandard material, and in part to the appealing central premise about the comedians need to express himself, fuelled by memories of the nun who forbade imagination when teaching him English. If only he’d fully embrace those feelings.

As it stands, Out Of My Head still feels very much like a work in progress than the 32nd date of a tour of fairly sizeable theatres. Merton has come up with an intriguing prospect, but it’s unpolished, underdeveloped and in need of a firm director who might explore the areas the comic himself is reluctant to commit to.

Review date: 2 May 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: New Wimbledon Theatre

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