Book Club At The British Library

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s bad news for the charity shops of West London. Robin Ince has closed his Book Club after three years, and the second-hand market for appalling celebrity autobiographies, lumpen romantic fiction and ill-conceived self-improvement manuals may never recover.

After its London residency, British tour, Edinburgh runs and radio pilot, the club night themed around poor-quality literature drew to a close last night in the plush conference centre of the British Library, a distinct change from the sort of highbrow volumes normally discussed within its hallowed portals.

So at this valedictory night, The Book Club faithful bade farewell to such old favourites as Stomy Vigil, the 1982 lighthouse-based romance with its appalling hyperbole (still available from Amazon, at 1p); the naively racist adventures of Roger Moore And The Crimefighters; and the insightful What God Does When Women Pray?

The books clutter the stage, but they have to. No one would believe the ridiculous jarring prose wasn’t exaggerated parody, if the evidence wasn’t there in black and white. Mostly all Ince has to do to raise a laugh is read aloud with sarcastic emphasis, but some of the passages were also illustrated with interpretive dance routines – amusingly acted out by Neil Edmond in a variety of deliberately unconvincing guises – or the operatic accompaniment of Catharine Rogers

The first rule of Book Club was always that the emphasis was on the ‘club’ part, rather than the ‘book’ part. So while Ince’s irony-laden commentaries on his latest dog-eared discoveries always provided a distinctive running theme, the nights’ primary function was to be a place like-minded comics could congregate and experiment, whether their routines had a literary bent or not. It was at the vanguard of new generation of alternative comedy, shunning the broad, dumbed-down appeal of major clubs to celebrate individuality, while building up an audience on the same wavelength.

Not everyone at the British Library would have known this, of course, and many, you suspect, would have even been to a comedy night before. But they would surely have been entertained, by the lively first half at least.

After Ince’s readings from the sacred texts, Waen Shepherd took to the stage – not as his most well-known creation, New Romantic pop star Gary Le Strange, but as himself, reading newly-rediscovered essays he wrote as a child.

The swashbuckling adventures of his indestructible murderer-slaying hero, conveniently also called Waen Shepherd, were naively hilarious, for reasons his nine-year-old self would never have understood. Indeed, given the appalling bad zany stand-up routine he wrote at such a young age, his concept of comedy at the time seems to have been defined by Timmy Mallet. Still, he seems to have picked it up in the intervening years, proving there is life after his well-observed, but ultimately limited, musical character had run its course.

Josie Long was the other main act of part one, waxing enthusiastically about her new passion for astronomy. As always it’s her wide-eyed likeability that proved her biggest asset, though the jokes at the heart of the routine shouldn’t be overlooked, and plenty of these are of impressive quality. When she gets distracted, the fragile relationship with the audience is on shakier ground – the digression about Bon Jovi’s waning popularity had little to recommend it – but she’s got the charm to win them back.

Elsewhere in the first half, Robert Newman made a brief appearance mocking a James I sonnet, possibly rather too obscure and erudite for even this crowd, while Book Club regular Martin White punctuated proceedings with songs on his accordion, plus a shamelessly bad pun, delicious for its pure effrontery. That he can assume his audience know of avant-garde composer John Cage shows the club’s ethos of crediting its audience with some intelligence, while keeping the jokes silly. This is the QI-style spirit of Book Club at its best.

The second rule of Book Club is that it will overrun. And part two was a shakier, more indulgent, affair that certainly could have been more brief.

Things got off to a decent start with Shepherd unveiling a new character, Colin Watson, a drug-damaged surf-pop legend, very much in the style of Brian Wilson. His track, Me And You, A Monkey, A Teddy, A Deaf Kid And A Shoe was an enjoyably precise pastiche, though lacking the pure laughs of his earlier appearance.

Then Newman returned for his main set, appearing as the thinly disguised character of ex-pub quiz champion Peter Linlithgow, spinning a surreal shaggy-dog story of a trivia-based rivalry. However the good ideas about knowledge versus wisdom at the heart of the routine were drowned under a weight of obscure references, over-florid descriptions and general showing-off, as the unnecessarily verbose Newman namedropped to prove his cleverness and breadth of his reading.

The gig’s energy needed picking up after that, but, strapped for time, Ince simply trundled Long straight back on stage, this time for a much less well thought-out routine than before. Her musings on the inner monologues of fellow Tube passengers, illustrated with drawings that couldn’t be seen at the back of the room, failed to make any connection, despite the substantial block of time she dedicated to them, and added to the disappointing feeling of sluggishness.

White managed rescue a decent ending from the struggling show, however, thanks to his unique Wuthering Heights cover version, which he professed to hate, despite his inability to keep a straight face.

The Book Club probably deserved a more triumphant send-off than this – but had there not been a couple of duds, it wouldn’t have been a Book Club. That’s the thing with experiments – some you win, some you lose. While the failures of the past three years will be forgotten, the successes have already helped broaden the scope of the comedy circuit to cater for those who want what he mainstream clubs don’t offer. That’s got to be a good thing, in anyone’s book.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
London, December 11, 2007

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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