Robin Ince\'s Christmas Book Club 2006

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

From modest beginnings, Robin Ince’s Book Club has attracted enough like-minded souls for Edinburgh runs, a national tour and now this Christmas special in a proper theatre in London’s literary district, a world away from its usual ram-packed basement bar home.

The show is at the vanguard of a new alternative in comedy, appealing to those who’d consider it abhorrent to spend a boozy night at a corporate chain, hearing boastful yet familiar tales of drunkenness, masturbating and smoking dope, however professionally delivered.

Yes, the night is unashamedly middle-class; yes it can strikes a sneery note in its elitism; and yes, some acts fall flat as the clever ideas aren’t matched by solid jokes – but the clubby atmosphere of audience and performers being on the same wavelength is what sustains it. Where else could you hear bantered insults that rely on a knowledge of Steinbeck novels, see the word game Boggle played live and have a character act fill with liberal angst over whether he’s coming across as racist.

With the Christmas special, Ince has created the first Sarcastic Variety Performance, supervising a parade of acts from whimsical stand-ups to good ole-fashioned tap dancers and opera singers. Between the turns, he reads from literature so bad it needs very little than unintended inflection to expose its clunking prose. From the deluded pomposity of Seventies C-listers to the awkward metaphors of a Mills and Boon scribe, there are few books on the charity-shop shelf that avoid Ince’s withering scorn.

Tonight, the books are arranged on a festive mantelpiece, as Ince, in his silk dressing-gown, prepares to settle into his favourite armchair to devour his latest showbiz memoirs but is forever interrupted by a string of guest stars ringing his novelty doorbell, in true Val Doonican style – although Val was never quite so dismissive about the obvious conceit.

The guest list is long, too long, in fact, but then it wouldn’t be The Book Club if the evening didn’t overrun dreadfully, with its share of ups and downs, too. But that’s the nature of the unpredictable beast. As Ince put it, it’s like a variety show when one minute you have the King Singers, the next Myra Hindley.

Highlights included James Bachman’s despotic African dictator Papa Christmas (the source of those fears over racism); the talented Isy Suttie’s delightfully witty songs; the perfectly-crafted one-liners of Simon Munnery Tom Meeten’s Animal Man with a dark side, Howard Read’s terrifying lullaby and Book Club stalwart Josie Long, whose stand-up set that mostly involved her singing dancefloor tunes with rather less sexually aggressive swagger than originally intended.

But Peter Buckley-Hill seemed unsure of himself, bumbling through what seemed like a perfectly decent comic song; Chris Neill was terribly self-indulgent before his ever-reliable routine from Jodie Marsh’s autobiography; a gag involving Johnny Candon was too much of an in-joke even for The Book Club (which is going some); and Martin White murdered All I Want For Christmas, bashed its bloody corpse around with his accordion before dumping its lifeless form into the canal.

Variety acts offered a change of pace and sense of occasion, including a silly mime from two-thirds of The Trap and the bizarre sight of Susan Vale reading from fat cockney entertainer Arthur Mullard’s memoirs before tapdancing while simultaneously scoffing a Yule log – a turn which outdid even ‘freakazoid’ comedy duo Gawakagogo’s Elvis-Elephant Man hybrid Ellyvis for utter strangeness. Praise, too, goes to the eerily downbeat Phil Jeays Band for entering the spirit of things, being berated for their utterly miserable songs before reluctantly playing something vaguely up-tempo.

The night was brought to a close by one of Danielle Ward’s Take A Break Tales – although not, apparently, called that any more for legal reasons. This retelling of the Nativity story in typically brutal style – with bleakness and misery treated as lightly as it is in women’s weekly magazines – is unlikely to be used in any primary schools soon. It might not fill you with festive cheer, but it was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of this experimental, entertaining and fleetingly inspired, night.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Review date: 18 Dec 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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