Emo Philips at Newbury Comedy Festival

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

Britain’s regional comedy festivals are getting increasingly ambitious in their choice of headliner. After Leicester’s coup in securing Roseanne Barr earlier this year, Newbury has snapped up an exclusive run of UK dates from everyone’s favourite weirdo, Emo Philips.

Philips was last here for the Edinburgh Fringe five years ago, surprising fans with a fashionably spikey haircut and a smart dress sense. But tonight, the familiar Emo is back, with hair as styled by a partially sighted Amish man with Parkinson’s and wearing the sort of baggy pyjama-style outfit that’s all the rage on the hottest psychiatric secure units.

It’s a look that better suits his style of comedy, part disturbed sociopath, part backward child – an impression further enhanced by his thousand-yard stare, a habit of distractedly playing with his own hair and a strained voice cracking as if through pubescence.

But though he may play up the troubled childishness, Emo’s a grown man, 50 years old, divorced and with a career that’s not attracted the material success to match the respect he’s garnered. And that lends a savage bitterness to his best one-liners.

And what gags they are. In his 30 years as a comic, Philips has come to be the undisputed king of the twisted one-liner, demonstrating ruthlessly efficient writing and a mastery of misdirection, giving you just enough information to expect one thing, only to pluck a brilliant punchline from out of the blue. Even though you should know to expect this, every one still comes as an unexpected gem.

The material’s never as dumb as the retarded persona might lead you to believe. Not only does it take a fierce intellect to create jokes as well-crafted as his, but Philips’ best lines confront big ideas, however obliquely. How many comics can do a routine about thwarting a beggar’s karmic logic that yields three strong laughs within its 20-second duration?

But most material is more straightforward. It’s easy to spot an underlying misogyny under the vicious barbs aimed at his ex-wife – but then Emo doesn’t get on with any human being, and besides it’s the fact he is the victim to an all-consuming resentment that’s where the joke lies.

For all the brilliance of the gags, Philips doesn’t quite seem on form tonight; though it bothers him more than it bothers the audience. He seems hot, distracted, uncomfortable to be here – well, even more than his character demands – and critical of his own performance, especially on the rare occasion when a line falls flat.

But he’s among friends here. The theatre is apparently full of fans – or Emophiliacs, as they’re known. Proof comes, should you need it, with the Q&A session Philips launches with trepidation towards the end. A good half of the contributions are little more than prompts to reprise old, and much-loved, material.

Opening the show to the floor was presumably an attempt to vary the pace, as even the best one-liners can tire after a relentless hour. The other thing Philips does to combat this is to end (at least before the inevitable encore) by showing us The Can Man, an unexpected treat of a silent film he made in 1992, accompanied by his own clarinet.

For an act with such a well-deserved reputation for brilliance with words, he proves adept without them, too, through these escapades of a homeless man collecting cans for recycling from the city’s bins. Not so much The Little Tramp, as the gawky one, thanks to some smart visual gags.

By his own standards, Emo may have been a bit wobbly on this first of three Newbury nights – but, by God, it’s good to see him back.

Review date: 1 Jan 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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