Manchester Comedy Festival 2007: The World Stands up

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

Steve McGrew is one of America’s most successful road comics, with 20-odd years of headlining experience under his belt. But it’s rather a surprise to see him turn up at the Manchester comedy festival, performing just one gig in Britain before jetting straight back to his Denver home.

He’s opened for some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Dolly Parton, Billy Crystal and The Beach Boys, but this a distinctly more modest affair, playing to a medium-sized club audience, who remained attentive but quiet, despite compere Mick Ferry’s best attempts to jolt them into life.

Opening act Joe K did little to help, performing with confidence but few jokes. His big performance, full of mugging and gurning and the occasional comedy African accent, is no substitute for punchlines.

For about half his set, he draws quite heavily on the fact he’s black, but very superficially, as if his skin colour inherently made him a fascinating curiosity for the predominantly white audience. But it’s what you say that makes you fascinating and that’s where Joe falls short.

Too often long build-up lead nowhere, such as the mirthless idea of asking a McDonald’s manager where the nearest KFC is, which he strings out for a good three minutes. The midget on the train is his only anecdote that really works, making the most of this slightly silly incident with deft storytelling skill. But for the most part, he lacks focus.

The same charge could be levelled at Tom Wrigglesworth – but his stumbling over the worlds to a newly-written song proved endearing, given he’d already spent much of his set winning the audience’s hearts.

His persona lies somewhere between Daniel Kitson and John Shuttleworth; sharing the accent of the former and the benign, modest aspirations of the latter. He has a strong self-deprecating streak, and his material is drawn from everyday domesticity.

Yet this soft persona also comes with a keen eye for the absurd that yields a stack of inventive, original observations that provide a rock-solid foundation for his set.

It could just be down to his hazy memory, but his whimsical folksy songs don’t share the gag rate of his stand-up. However, they are delightfully charming in their own right, and certainly entertain.

On, then, to the main event; the impressively slick McGrew, who has the worn-but-healthy look of a missing Bee Gee.

His years on stage have made him the consummate professional. His delivery is vibrant and pacy, with every gag hit with the laser-guided accuracy a cruise missile would envy. The set ploughs forward, fluidly, relentlessly, offering just enough pause for laughs but not for contemplation. His timing is split-second precise - so precise, in fact, that his whole set came in within ten seconds of its allocated 45-minute slot.

The subject matter is unwaveringly mainstream, not straying too far from the most well-worn paths of stand up. Most of it’s about relationships – and with three divorces under his belt, he’s certainly got enough source material. It’s about being lazy as his wife nags, about romance ebbing out of a marriage, about being drunk, about the soundtracks to porn music. The comedy bingo-card of hackneyed subjects soon has full house.

His patter is punctuated with a stream of similarly familiar tricks, such as the recurring squealing pig straight out of Deliverance. But the way he employs them is faultless, and you can’t deny their effectiveness at getting, and amplifying, the laughs.

He’s America’s Jeff Green, with unambitious material expertly told. He’s such a master craftsman he should be in some sort of guild, even if the artistic side of stand-up is less well-served. So while most thoughts he conveys will be instantly familiar to tcomedy devotees, you have to stand back and admire the way he does it.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Manchester, October 2007

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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