Doug Stanhope, Soho Theatre
Show type: West End run
Six five-star reviews and not a single award nomination. Doug Stanhope, the most controversial and talked about comedian of the Edinburgh Festival, comes to Soho for his London debut.
Doug Stanhope isn’t comfortable about the reviewers lurking in the dark tonight. In his native America, where comedy isn’t considered an artform worthy of much critical analysis, he says he can get away with a shoddy attitude to his work and no one will ever notice. But here he has to put the effort in. Not only that, he also feels he has to stretch his self-confessed ‘mediocre intellect’ because the British have somehow formed the impression that he’s smarter than he is.
Whatever the reason, Stanhope has raised his game to an impressive degree. Now he’s on such blistering, provocative, abrasively hilarious form that he is, frankly, unmissable.
Previous shows have often been frustrating, as his brilliance has been tempered by his bored, distracted delivery. At Edinburgh, in the soulless George Square Theatre, he looked awkwardly out of place. But in the intimacy of Soho Theatre, he’s both at his ease and eager to impress, in a way he mightn’t were he in the comfort zone of his natural habitat, the late-night smoke-filled bar.
Tonight, too, he plays down his frathouse-friendly tales of drunken debauchery, narcotics abuse and depraved sex in favour of hard-hitting material alive with ideas, opinions and attitude. He’s being outrageous because of what he thinks, not what he does and the set is all the better – near-perfect, even – because of it.
Despite his over-modest protestations, he has got an incredible intelligence, not a logical book-learning one, admittedly, but an astonishing ability to think his own thoughts, to tackle topics from bold new angles and to encompass big ideas into sharp rants that cut right through the crap.
The points he raises are, on the face of it, often outrageously offensive. He sets out why he hates Jews; makes light of child abuse; explains why eugenics was a good idea, badly executed; and asks ‘what exactly is wrong with child pornography?’
It’s enough to prompt a kneejerk tabloid ‘ban-this-filth’ witch-hunt, and certainly causes bristles even among a liberal comedy crowd. But the intention is not just to shock – well, not entirely – but also to force the listener to question received wisdom and see things in a previously unimagined way.
That sounds a lot for a man primarily known, at least in his homeland, as a purveyor of filth and depravity, but only he can start a routine basically by calling a slut a slut, regardless of any pyschobabble reasoning for her behaviour, and within a minute spin it into a feminist, anti-corporate, anti-religion punchline.
Stanhope’s bravado is breathtaking and his lay-it-on-the-line honesty admirable. He does touch on his drink-and-drug-fuelled life on the road but here it’s tragi-comic – as if this was any sort of life for a man pushing 40 – rather than boastful.
For all the big ideas and inevitable controversy, however, the bottom line is that Stanhope, on his day, can make everything brilliantly funny, while still jabbing uncomfortably at the very morals you hold dear. This certainly was his day, hopefully one of many, and it proved conclusively why, if you are any sort of fan of stand-up, you HAVE to see Doug Stanhope.
Doug Stanhope is at the Soho Theatre until October 24.Click here for tickets
October 11, 2006