Russell Brand [Montreal 2008]

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

It might be very rock and roll, but keeping the audience waiting in their seats for 20 minutes without explanation isn’t the best way to make a first impression. Russell Brand’s Just For Laughs debut was, after all, less a gig than a blind date, in which neither side got quite what they expected, nor quite knew what to make of the other.

About half of the 300-strong audience in the Centaur Theatre seemed to know who he was, while the rest instantly began sizing him up. Who was this gangly English dandy with the ridiculous hair, drainpipe jeans, shirt open to the navel and more goth bling than a Sisters Of Mercy merchandise stall? And why is he speaking in language so extravagantly archaic his scriptwriter could have been HG Wells.

He, too, seemed unsure how to present himself. For the first 15 minutes or so, he lolloped across the stage distractedly throwing a few random thoughts into the ether. He was getting the measure of the Canadian audiences, but his mind seemed elsewhere. ‘How charming of him not to have rehearsed,’ he imagined people thinking, before reassuring them: ‘I have got a show here.’

But until he got to it, we had to take his word on that. He grumbled that he’d had a bad day, and bemoaned the media backlash he’d received for making that hoax call to a police incident room during his show in Northampton. He seemed genuinely rattled by it, and was keen to state the case for the defence, enthusiastically protesting his innocence like one of Fagin’s urchins caught by the Peelers.

A few more vague pronouncements followed – ‘God? It’s better than nuffink, isn’t it?’ or ‘Hitler. It was out of order what he done’ – mildly funny for their obvious blandness, but still offering no solid train of thought for the audience to latch onto.

But eventually he did settle into material, guided by the notes he’d left on the stool. He emphasised that he was a celebrity in Britain, though wittily conceded that ‘fame is something that loses its cachet if you have to tell people that you have it’. And he admitted he craved the same recognition on the western side of the Atlantic, conceding that his flamboyance is frankly ridiculous without it. Well, he seems to be going the right way about it, thanks to his role in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall and a couple of talked-about chat show appearances that followed.

Indeed, while Britons got to know him because his stand-up was based on frank and hilarious stories about the wild excesses and seedy depravities of his drug-addicted past, a lot of his set here revolved around on-set tales of shooting in Hawaii. It’s not such fertile or fascinating territory, but this is his sober life now.

However, Brand certainly knows how to bring out the humour in any situation, and these glorified talk-show anecdotes bristle with sharp, self-deprecating wit. And the strong confessional element remains, as he reads out the contents of an embarrassingly flirtatious email he sent to Serena Williams after they appeared on Jonathan Ross’s show together. Mind you, he can’t be that embarrassed about it if he’s prepared to share it with strangers.

The distinctive delivery style, once he hits his stride, is as strangely compelling as ever. The audience buy into it, too, perhaps familiar with the precedent for linguistic grandstanding that Eddie Izzard set, or maybe they’ve just see enough TV adaptations of Dickens novels to understand his ambitious Victorian vocabulary.

What other stand-up will freely use words such words ‘quotidian’, inculcate’ or ‘recalcitrant’ in their set-ups? Or beautifully poetic phrases like ‘a litany of grim taboo’ or the description of himself as ‘a sculpture of my experiences’. Brand proves you can talk up to an audience, even when you’re just doing a Michael Jackson gag.

Talking of which, he trod very gingerly here, perhaps for fear of further tabloid misrepresentation. It would be comedy’s loss if he began to feel constrained by such possibilities.

But it’s good material, and by the time he closed the show with a celebratory sex routine, full of cheeky filth, he’d won the audience over, consigning that very faltering start to a distant memory. Had this really been a blind date, we’d almost certainly be heading back to Brand’s bachelor for a ‘coffee’, and maybe a quick tootle on the kazoo, to use one of his own euphemisms.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Montreal, July 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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