Robert Newman at the Greenwich Comedy Festival 2009

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

At one point during Robert Newman's comeback show at the Greenwich Comedy Festival, the lights abruptly dim. Has the tecchie heeded his warnings about the increasing scarcity of power, or is it simply to set the right mood for Newman's gloomy predictions about the fate of mankind.

This is not so much stand-up comedy as stand-up pessimism, in which he paints a chilling picture of world wars over ever-decreasing oil reserves before our civilisation goes the way of the Mayans and the Romans.

He makes a depressingly convincing case, quoting experts and history to back him up. This is one of those comedy shows that comes with a reading list, and at times sounds more like a lecture than a gig, as Newman fills us in on a brief history of Western intervention in the Middle East, from the origins of World War One to the coup d’etat that installed the Shah in Iran to protect Anglo-American oil interests. In fact, he’s very pleased with himself for avoiding cheap gags about CIA lynchpin Kermit Roosevelt’s first name – but still sneaks one in about a ‘puppet regime’.

Puncturing the seriousness without undermining it is where the wit comes, if all too infrequently. Newman’s perhaps become too close to the bleak subject to see much humour in it. He’s now something of an expert in this field that’s often ignored by the mainstream media, and he’s told these tales before.

But it’s often fascinating, even if you already know the background, because Newman's charisma and ability to hold a crowd is undimmed, even when fighting against the mobile-phone interference that sends the Greenwich Theatre speakers into frequent bouts of pulsating crackles. Despite the occasional witty turn of phase, however, the topic can only rarely be laugh-aloud funny.

That pretty much is the style for the night, even when he’s off his beloved doom-mongering. There’s an extended ‘poem’ - in reality a character piece - about pub quizzes gone too far, which again makes a warm, enjoyable and whimsical short story, although the chuckle rate is low.

Elsewhere, he gives some advice about what to do if kidnapped in one of the world’s ever increasing number of hotspots, talks about the unwittingly sinister voice of his landlord - the vocal doppelganger of Alec Guinness, and plays a little jaunty banjo. This all makes for rather a ‘bitty’ show, even one running just 60 minutes, with the main theme of global meltdown decorated with a few ornamental set pieces.

This is a one-off performance, mixing old material and new, following an enforced absence from the stage because of medical problems, so perhaps a fully coherent hour is a tall order. But even if the humour is only shining as brightly as a low-energy lightbulb, Newman himself remains engaging company with an eye for absurd detail, as demonstrated by his best observation of the night. Browsing through the programme for the comedy festival, he was amused to read that it would ‘help put Greenwich on the map’ – which is quite a boast for the home of longitude.

The technically blighted evening ends in a power cut front of house, with Newman playfully yelling: ‘Told you so!’ from the wings as the news is announced. Aptly enough, after our enlightenment, we return to darkness.

We’d better get used to it, I guess, but it would be nice if Newman could provide more cheer in the dark days ahead, rather than just historical and social context for them.

Review date: 9 Sep 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Greenwich Theatre

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