Mark Steel: Vive La Revolution

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

Mark Steel has made The French Revolution his own, taking this far-from obvious comedy subject to produce a book, this tour, and, soon, a DVD.

You can certainly see the appeal for an old leftie firebrand with an unshakeable belief that people power can overthrow injustice. This, after all, was the defining moment in European history: a time when the old order was overturned by common men challenging a decadent Royal family who assumed they had a divine right to rule, however arbitrarily they chose.

But Steel doesn’t present the textbook version of events. He has no truck with dry historical teaching that assumes every important figure from the past speaks with actorly received pronunciation, straight out of Rada.

Instead, he excels at bringing the revolutionary fervour to vivid life by seeing it though the eyes of regular people. Riotous mobs don’t have demands, as academics tend to surmise, but are largely confused people fired up by a newfound taste of freedom, yet unsure what to do with it. Likewise, the storming of the Bastille is likened to the chaotic attempts at organising a ragtag collection of chaotic South London socialists, all with better things to be doing.

In his unique retelling of history, Steel proves fascinating, bringing a unique viewpoint and amusing, obscure detail to the bald facts. Some of the most entertaining parts of the show are when he simply reads extracts from genuine documents of the time – the po-faced account of the King’s sexual ejaculations being the best case in point – to underline the mundane and petty distractions of great figures.

There’s a sense this core tale could be more interesting than funny, which Steel addresses by bolting on several straight stand-up routines about the modern world, ostensibly to make point that his observations from 200 years ago still have relevance today, although they really form set pieces to ‘gag up’ the show.

It means Viva La Revolution has a split personality; part fun, informative, and easy-going lecture, part straight-down-the-line comedy show. And both sides are inevitably compromised by the existence of the other.

Sometimes, when the show really shines, the two halves mesh together perfectly, such as when Steel considers the claim that violent rap music breeds more violence, then imagines the 1812 Overture prompting a spate of ‘drive-by cannonings’. Even this great segment is unrelated to the French Revolution. Too often you can see the joint between the two component parts of the show, and we jolt uneasily between them.

Some of the more modern observations – such as the now-predictable routine about Islamic suicide bombers supposedly promised 72 virgins in heaven – are distinctly ordinary; as are some segments specifically tailored to this Brighton crowd about the chi-chi retailers of the Lanes.

The best routines, inevitably, are when his passion is stoked. When he repeatedly declares a hero’s actions ‘brilliant’ – overemphasising the word to convince you of the fact – you know he’s about to make a forcefully funny point. Rants become outrageous, and the lines he employs shine with wit, and they work all the better when they fit with his main narrative, rather than broader observations of today’s world.

The net result of the show’s dual personality is that it never quite catches light, though it has all the ingredients to do so. Steel could probably have taken a guillotine to some of the more tenuously linked stand-up to better tell the story that so obviously inspires him. It would have cost some laughs, but added to the satisfaction of the show.

But though the levels of fascination and hilarity ebb and flow, the result is always enjoyable, as Steel is a compelling orator who always holds the audience’s attention with his genuine enthusiasm for the topic. Come the next revolution, we should put him in charge of history teaching.

Review: Steve Bennett
Brighton, October 9, 2007

The revolution will be televised…

Mark Steel will be recording his Vive Le Revolution show later this month, to be released as his first DVD.

To mark the occasion, we are giving away a signed copy of the book, and a pair of tickets to the filmed show, including a bottle of French wine to enjoy on the night.

The show will be recorded at Blackheath Halls, South London, on Friday October 26. For tickets, call 020 8463 0100.

For readers who cannot make the, the book can be sent out by post, but there is no alternative to the tickets.

To stand a chance of winning, just answer the following question by October 21, when the winner will be chosen at random from all correct answers received.

What was one of the rallying cries of the French Revolution?

Which award did Sean Hughes win in 1990?

Your name:

Your email:

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

What do you think?

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.