Phil Kay at the 2010 Brighton Fringe

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s grossly unprofessional, and something I’d never normally do. But I’ll come clean and confess that this review of Phil Kay’s Brighton Fringe show comes despite the fact that I didn’t see it through to the end.

The reason is that, with just over five minutes of his allotted time to go, he called a 15-minute interval… and with the demands of a festival schedule, I couldn’t hang about – even though, with Kay’s reputation for abandoning all conventions of comedy, overrunning was always going to be a risk. So even if the interval and ‘second half’ turned out to be comically short, the next show was already calling…

Unpredictability is Kay’s watchword. When he first burst on to the scene in the early Nineties, his freeflowing trains of thought and boundless improvisational wit made him a genuinely exciting prospect. And though I’d heard reports of brilliance in his later work, I’d experienced so many patience-sapping shows that descended into self-indulgent, unfunny mental meanderings, grasping in vain at any straw of inspiration, to render those awesome early gigs just distant memories.

Today, though, his show fell somewhere in between the two extremes, with some scintillating moments of absolute hilarity, as well as a few comedy cul-de-sacs.

The difficulty may not be that he lost his spontaneous brilliance, but that expanding it to solo shows diluted it. What might seem an exciting burst of erratic energy, shaking up a staid old club night is impossible to sustain over an hour or more. It’s like having the one-night-stand and the embarrassing morning after all wrapped up in the same experience.

Kay references this fact, acknowledging some 20 minutes in that he really ought to stop his faffing around, even though it produced as many chuckles as you could expect in the unwelcoming atmosphere of a giant domed tent, so big there’s a tree inside, yet sparsely populated with audience. It was time, he suggested, for the prepared material. Of which, of course, there was none. Kay is not tied down by such convention.

The freewheeling Scotsman offers a running commentary on the gig, which makes the reviewers’ job either very easy, or redundant. ‘How the fuck can I get away with this shit?’ he asks rhetorically at one point. And at another, when greeted with blank faces, he asserts that he could only do what he thought was funny, not what we might think is funny.

His most accurate comment, though, was to compare his show to ‘how the salami is made’. For this is not the processed, finished product of most professional, and indeed successful, comedians – but the raw process. It may be fascinating, but it also includes the uncomfortable steps of the process.

So in the bloody abattoir that is his show, there’s lots to admire. He mucks around with his surroundings, sure, but there’s also insightful, funny stuff on the non-scandal of ‘bigotgate’ and a take on the Iggy Pop insurance adverts that goes against the conventional wisdom – pointing out that very few of his detractors are actually buying his records, so no wonder he turned to easy money. And not many comics can start a routine with ‘imagine being buried alive in Haiti’ – yet turn it around to end on a genuinely good joke, the enjoyment exaggerated by the feeling even Kay himself wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out.

There are entertaining personal anecdotes about riding ticketless on trains, or on getting a takeaway from an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, sparked simply by finding the lid to the aluminium tray still in his rucksack. Though why I’m describing what the show is about is a riddle – it’ll almost certainly be about something else if you go and see it.

Then, at other times, he’ll be lost for a punchline, keeping on talking till he stumbles on an exit route. Or maybe not, as he stops his flow abruptly for a rather lengthy tuning of his guitar, saying only that he should probably have done this before he got to the stage. Well, yes…

But my long-lost faith in Kay has been at least partially restored thanks to a show that wasn’t just about seeing the mechanics of how a mind that refuses to be tied down works – but actually generated some funny as well.

Review date: 4 May 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Brighton Freerange

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