Simon Amstell: No Self

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

Review of the West End/touring show

Anybody expecting Simon Amstell’s live show to be based on the same cheeky, celebrity-deriding sarcasm that defines his TV career is in for a shock. He is determined to be considered a serious comedian – however oxymoronic that might sound – who deals more than just devastatingly sneery putdowns.

He makes his case, and makes it hard, from the very start, stating starkly that the very concepts of self and individuality are only illusions and that we are all manifestations of one collective consciousness. It sounds more like the introduction to an arcane philosophy lecture than a stand-up show from a floppy-haired bloke who used to present Popworld.

As a statement of intent, such a bleak opening certainly deters any fans drawn simply by Amstell’s in-vogue celebrity from thinking this is a lightweight ‘meet the telly presenter’ session. Such star-struck folk, more interested in getting blurry cameraphone shots than hearing carefully considered comedy, ruined the rhythm of at least one of his Edinburgh performances (see the review below). But here in genteel Tunbridge Wells, Amstell’s last regional stop-off before a month of Sundays in London, the sell-out crowd behave impeccably.

They are rewarded with 90 or so minutes of honest, intelligent, self-analytical and sometimes profound stand-up, that skilfully weaves together anecdotes from his failed relationships, middle-class eco-angst, and confessional tales of his own lack of empathy into a funny and absorbing show.

His outlook is unremittingly nihilistic, a stance that gives his jokes an added edge, simply from the release from the desolate fatalism his build-ups evoke. No one’s special, death would be blessed released from life’s hassle…

You might thing, from his beliefs, that the tone would be miserable, but as plenty of other comics have found before him, there’s great humour in despair. In fact, when all is lost, laughter is the only sensible response.

He doesn’t get bogged down in any of his theorising, instead using it as a thread to link routines in which he chats, matter-of-factly, about his failings and fraught relationships, whether it be with his ex, his divorced parents or any of their respective subsequent partners (his family tree seems to have more ‘steps’ than your average ziggurat). It’s comedy as therapy, but since he can laugh at his flaws, it seems churlish for us not to join in – especially as he’s taken so much trouble to make it funny. The glibness of his twentysomething generation means there’s gap between the seriousness of the situation and his flippant, ironic response to it, which is where jokes can be planted.

He banters sparingly with the audience, just enough to maintain order or make them the butt of his joke, but there’s never any question that is setting the agenda, with things he needs to say.

The show moves seamlessly onto his own moral dilemmas in making the right ethical choices, with everything from Converse trainers to Innocent smoothies coming with added guilt, as his ultra-green friend is more than keen to remind him. Caring about what he buys is something he says his ‘character’ would do – as he doesn’t belief in the self, the projection of a zeitgeisty urbanite with an accidentally fashionable geek chic look is all he can cling to.

But, in fact, for someone who doesn’t believe in the self, Amstell admits to being remarkably selfish, and the routines where he holds his hands up to such less-than exemplary behaviour are guilty pleasures. It really is all self, self, self – even when he’s caught in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. More than 200,000 people may have perished, but he managed to turn some aspects of it to his advantage, proves the mantra that every tidal wave has a silver lining… Inevitably, this routine flirts with bad taste, but Amstell has got both a self-aware charm and sharp enough mind to justify it.

The show hitting the West End combines the best bits of his two Edinburgh offerings, and he’s very good at hiding the joins. The show flows freely, although the themes – even his very outlook – shifts as it goes along. The only problem comes when he needs an ending to cement everything together, and draws an embarrassing blank.

But along the way we enjoyed some wonderfully posed one-liners, a sometimes challenging point of view and a handful of engaging stories. Oh, and just a few of those sneery put-downs, just to maintain the image. Amstell’s getting better all the time, and this mature show is another step to proving himself a worthwhile stand-up who just happens to excel on TV, rather that a telly star vainly dabbling in the live arena.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Tunbridge Wells, September 30, 2007

Review of the Edinburgh show (3 stars)

It’s an inevitable by-product of fame, but poor Simon Amstell isn’t attracting the audience he wants.

He wants to bare his soul; they just want to take grainy mobile-phone footage of the ‘skinny Jew’ from tekky to post on YouTube. No wonder he gets irritable, confiscating a couple of cameras and slinging them huffily across the stage.

It makes for an awkward start, from which he, or the atmosphere, never really recovers. For the rest of the hour, he appears distracted, never quite hitting his stride or having complete confidence in his material.

That’s a shame, because at the heart of No Self lies a fascinating, confessional, thoughtful show, a thousand miles from the snidey celebrity-baiting at which he excels on TV. If only his fans would let him tell it, and if only he could find more focus in his delivery.

The ideas in the show came from a painful break-up of a two-year relationship that sent Amstell into a bout of intense navelgazing. Many comedians say they’ve just split up with their partner, very few use it to explore an existentialist crisis about the nature of personality, concluding that we’re all essentially the same, and use only minor artificial distinctions to con ourselves that we’re individuals.

This conclusion gives a bleak, nihilistic streak that runs right through the core of this show. He thinks it’s unethical to be happy, and openly wonders: ‘Is there anything worse than being alive?’

Along with such darkness, he’s callous, selfish and lonely – and more than willing to admit to them all. They are the perfect ingredients for powerful, edgy comedy that he consistently flirts with. He’s clearly a fan of Stewart Lee’s more intense work, and operates on the fringes of that same territory. He has the delivery and timing to be able to pull it off, too.

But he keeps bringing himself back from that edge, not quite building up the momentum to drag everyone along in his slipsteam of misery. He just doesn’t seem quite comfortable enough with the audience, the room, or in his own skin to make that quantum leap.

Despite the flaws, though, I want to see this show again. To see if he can’t pull it off under different circumstances, because when he does, it’ll really fly. There’s real intelligence and honesty here, and when that’s properly channelled Amstell will surely join the comedy elite.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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