Best of Britishness

Michael Monkhouse reviews Shelley Cooper: Britishness in Rome

The English Theatre of Rome is opening up its new season, and what finer way to do so than with Shelley Cooper and her Edinburgh Fringe show Britishness.

She’s got pretty large boots to fill. The last season saw top Aussie stand-up Sarah Kendall, followed by damn hilarious Steve Day. So it’s something of a relief that she manages to fit the bill – and with such aplomb too.

She waddles onstage to an evocative God Save The Queen fanfare, and after pompously introducing herself settles swiftly down into her husky London patter. The contrast alone gets a laugh – a bit like the heroic Omid Djalili sailing on majestically then chirping ‘Hello’ – but fortunately this is no gimmick-heavy goofiness, it’s good old stand-up, pure and complicated.

Sure, she plays on her past as a bloke, but in the tradition of the glorious Eddie Izzard, the gender element drives the comedy without limiting it. Instead of bog-standard man/woman playfulness we get some tough but kindly audience-baiting and some right-on but heartfelt political satire.

But the strongest part of Shelley’s first half is a relentless six-minute potted history of the UK allowing her to (a) pile on the gags, (b) flaunt an intelligent and cynical awareness of society and (c) graft synergy onto the tired old joke-joke-joke format. It’s a bold move, but a winning one, and when she winds up with a toast to the ‘ah-so-pure’ English race, we’re more prepared to toast her cunning than our own foolishness.

But Shelley’s a true professional. Instead of dragging things out she stops when the going’s good: ‘Time for a break now and I’d like you to submit jokes. Write the best one and I’ll buy you a drink. Write the worst ’un, you buy me one.’ And as I indulged in a mid-show pint, a poncey punter moaned at this spurt of cheesiness... But I demur. This kind of tactic’s a nice way to bring the spectators in and also enliven the monologue. Hell, Jack Dee himself does something similar when he asks the viewers to leave comments for his acerbic wit to get its teeth into.

Gags aside – and incidentally, my own almost made the evening’s worst – Shelley kicks off the second half, and it’s even tougher and rougher and – hoorah – ruder than the first one. Because she’s no longer playing the warm-up hostess, she’s too busy laying into everything. And I mean everything: religion, politics, homosexuals. And yeah, sometimes it degenerates into formula, like that tried and tested ‘reveal’ mechanism. And sometimes she loses the audience – notably with an unnecessarily cruel barb against animal rights activists – but like equally hard-hitting Denis Leary she’s quick enough to read our reaction and change tack before we get too miffed.

Shelley went down a treat at Edinburgh and is currently hitting New York. I’m just damn glad she found time for a couple of nights in the Eternal City in between.

Published: 4 Nov 2008

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