Felix Dexter: On The Edge
Show type: Tour
Star of Absolutely Fabulous, Grumpy Old Men, Radio 4 Down The Line and The Real McCoy
It’s hard to believe that The Real McCoy was 15 years ago, but its memories, plus appearances in the likes of Grumpy Old Men, mean Felix Dexter can still fill small theatres – and fill them with enthusiastic fans at that. In return, he gives them exactly what they want, a mixture of affectionate character sketches and mainstream stand-up.
These components are wildly different; the comic creations are rich, warm and meticulously observed, playing to his considerable strengths as a performer, while the segments delivered ‘as himself’ are uninspired and tired, exposing his equally considerable weaknesses as a writer.
He refers to his style as ‘ethnic comedy’, which is to do it a disservice. The characters he creates may be black archetypes, but we can all relate to them. The flip side is that most of his stand-up is so generic it could be delivered by just about anybody, of whatever background. Indeed, a great deal of it already has.
Dexter opens with one of his strongest characters: cab office worker Nathaniel, the self-deluded ‘sexy bastard’, full of arrogance, braggadico and unasked-for advice, He is so hopelessly unaware of his own failings and the realities of his modest life that he cuts a slightly pathetic figure, endearing a great deal of unlikely sympathy from the audience. That he interacts with them in character also serves to heighten the intimacy of the show.
Another hit is the well-spoken barrister who lapses into precisely enunciated patois, a juxtaposition and verbal rhythm that’s always inherently funny. But for all the proud links with the streets he imagines he has, he can’t brink himself to say that he’s black.
Samuel Benjamin, the tough former London Underground worker whose string ‘em up mentality earned him the sobriquet ‘the Harold Shipman of ticket inspecting’ is a solid comic concept, even if his ultra-reactionary views ultimately prove a bit too predictable, while his tired OAP full of first-hand experience of social change is endearing, but light on gags.
But even at their most sluggish, Dexter’s considered, three-dimensional portraits are an enjoyable antidote to the trend towards short, sharp sketches that serve only to deliver catchphrases as quickly as possible. Mentioning no names, of course.
For the first part of the show, Dexter punctuates these extended skits by chatting amenably away. It’s patchy, but features a few original ideas. There can’t be many stand-ups who mention the Zulu wars, but for every fresh scrap, there’s plenty of gags that are old, or just plain rubbish. Example: Heather Mills – she hasn’t got a leg to stand on…
And he’s not afraid to exploit a few racial stereotypes - there is some observational comedy about how black people always want a discount from anyone whose skin shares the same reflective index, he sarcastically thanks the West Indians for sitting for ten minutes without not causing trouble, and re-establishes that white men can’t dance, which is forgiven for being so well illustrated with an utterly ridiculous physical demonstration.
But in the second half, there’s an extended stand-up routine of awful tedium, ticking off every hack subject, especially pissed-off women telling their bewildered menfolk ‘if you don’t know what’s wrong, I’m not telling you’, then meticulously filing away every inconsequential comment to use as evidence in later rows. Then there’s incredulity at the action women in tampon adverts, musing about why suicide bombers want virgins when someone more sluttish would probably be more attractive, and the hoary old subject of Mary explaining away the immaculate conception to Joseph, material that’s probably as old as the gospels themselves.
I’d lost interest long before he got to a Shakespeare section that seems to exist mainly to show that he was once in the RSC and can still recite pentameter – but the rest of the North London crowd still seemed in thrall of his charms.
Credit for that must surely go for the mini-characterisations that pepper his animated delivery. Even when he’s doing fifth-rate stand-up, it’s his spot-on impressions that elevate his lacklustre material. He should certainly stick to being other people.
Review by: Steve Bennett
Millfield Theatre, London. October, 2006
Date of review: Oct 2006