Stewart Lee: Much A-Stew About Nothing | Gig review by Steve Bennett at Leicester Square Theatre

Stewart Lee: Much A-Stew About Nothing

Gig review by Steve Bennett at Leicester Square Theatre

This, Stewart Lee warns his audience in general and the two critics in the room in particular, is not like his usual shows. Not one long, continuous train of thought with a perfectly neat conclusion, but three half-hour works in progress, ideas which will eventually become his next BBC Two stand-up series when he records it next month.

Each performance of his residency at London's Leicester Square Theatre will not only be different, he says, but the quality will deteriorate as once routines have proved to work, they will be rested in favour of others that need more TLC.

But in its current state, at least, nobody need feel short-changed: for Lee in development is better than most comics who think they're done. That's why he's been able to tour these ideas since the Edinburgh Fringe, with the occasional rough edge no obstacle to a quality night of comedy.

He plays with styles in the three sets we witness tonight, frequently using his trademark rhythms of constant repetition, but not exclusively. He even channels Max Miller at one point, conspiratorially glancing into the wings to check on the presence of any censorious authority.

Lee always plays the long game, however, seeding and cultivating ideas for a stronger pay-off at the end - to the extent that he'll give away spoilers to his own material, simply to increase the anticipation of their arrival. He has always delivered the sort of intellect-on-its-sleeve comedy that makes people feel smart for getting it (and punishes those who don't) even if he has to provide all the information himself.

Of course, he exposes all the trick of the trade – if ever there was a comedy equivalent of the Magic Circle, he'd be drummed out of it – but rather than simply drawing attention to the manipulative devices, he subverts them to his advantage. And he doesn't just burst clichés of comedy, there's a standard turn of phrase that gets expertly dismembered here. Lee's skill is to use both rapier and bludgeon to eviscerate his targets, whether big and deserving or utterly trivial.

The first section tonight is about politics in its broadest sense, how the distinct ideological clashes of his youth have been replaced by two near-identical centralist management teams, each with manifold faults. But it's not satire, at least not by the definition of the genre he's picked up from the likes of Animal Farm.

His technique then is to painstakingly explain the logic of his idea, or rather a false assumption he fears idiots might make. The fact this is done repetitively here pays only limited dividends, but to complain about Lee being needlessly cyclical is like complaining about grass for begin green.

The repetitive approach is stronger at the start of the second section, when he regales an argument he had with a stereotypically racist cab driver who blithely asserted: 'If you say you're English these days, you get arrested and thrown in jail.' 'I wore him down eventually,' the comic states, after doing the same to us.

That conversation leads Lee into a discourse about immigration, including a stupidly surreal take on supposed Latvian archetypes, heavy on ironic subtext, and a beautifully surgical evisceration of Paul Nuttall 'of the UKIPs, from Liverpool', subjecting one of his isolationist pronouncements to the relentless ridicule it deserves – while also taking Peter Kay-style nostalgia comedy to its preposterous extremes.

The third part was a bleak-edged routine about his life as an impotent, out-of-touch 45-year-old functioning alcoholic, married with two young narrative devices... aka children. He imagines other lives, and other wives, he might have - portraying his real spouse (comedian Bridget Christie, whom he doesn't name) as an alcoholic, rabidly Catholic Irishwoman who no longer views him as a sexual being.

Despite tongue-in-cheek elements such as this, it's a darkly heartfelt section that goes much deeper than the stock thoughts about ageing that many a middle-aged male comic might share... the delicate mood only ruined by the audience member who felt the need to correct a cultural reference Lee was wilfully getting wrong, apparently unaware that this might actually be the joke. Then again, Lee genuinely forgot the name of Ben Fogle earlier in the show, despite having a bit on him, so maybe she thought she was genuinely helping out.

If Lee is name perfect on the Sugarbabes when his Comedy Vehicle returns to scenes sometime in the autumn, we'll have that anonymous contributor to thank.

Review date: 7 Nov 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

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