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Stewart Lee: Silver Stewbilee

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

Such is Stewart Lee’s influence on comedy, not only can he fill a 2,000-seat venue amid all the rest of the Fringe hoopla, but he can also persuade thousands of people to vote that an obscure Japanese avant-garde troupe they’ve never seen is the best comedy show ever – and yet do it in the name of integrity.

Well, at his Silver Stewbilee to mark his 25 years on the Fringe – or, more truthfully, to launch his new book How I Escaped My Certain Fate – comedy aficionados finally got to see what they were backing, with Frank Chickens’ first Fringe appearance since they were nominated for the Perrier that same year Lee first attended the festival.

He picked their name semi-randomly to illustrate how the Foster’s-backed poll to find the ‘comedy god’ of the past 30 years was biased towards modern favourites, unaware that the group was even still performing, albeit in a revised form. Seventeen of them, all in costumes, filled the stage at the close of this anniversary gig, and Michael McIntyre, they most certainly are not.

Thankfully, though, they are not pretentious tripe either – which must have been a real fear. With silly lyrics seemingly chosen for their sound rather than their meaning, they execute tightly choreographed dance routines that are as beautiful as they are bizarre. Nonetheless three songs, including their ‘greatest hit’ We Are Ninja (Not Geisha) and the preposterous My Husband Is A Spaceman, was probably enough to allow the audience to witness the spectacle without being left too baffled.

It was an unusual ending to a showcase that, despite all the hype about exciting mystery guests, was a largely predictable line-up of his friends who are already at the Fringe, all pretending to be someone else: Simon Munnery, Paul Putner, the actor Kevin Eldon, and his wife Bridget Christie. However, there were two surprises, one planned, one apparently not.

Eldon kicked off the show with smug Guardianista Paul Hamilton, the man who put the ‘wet’ in ‘po-wet’, delivering his verses about the real injustices in the world – such as inconsiderate campers at Glastonbury.

Putner adopted his long-forgotten guise of Earl Stevens, the slick American comic who never bothered to check his references before he came on stage, leaving him with a line in observational comedy about things no one could have observed. Belting out catchphrases from sitcoms that never made it across the Atlantic while mocking congressmen and Mets players somehow didn’t play with the Edinburgh crowd, even though he insists ‘this stuff killed at the Arkansas Chuckle Hut last week’. This massive in-joke is probably best enjoyed by serious comedy anoraks… so Lee’s audience lapped it up.

Munnery revived Alan Parker: Urban Warrior, still kicking against the system with pithy, often contradictory, slogans – ‘Ignorance is a weapon! Use it’ – and revolutionary placards, illegible to those of us at the back. Despite being a middle-aged man, or perhaps because of it, Parker’s naïve petulance plays as strongly as ever, thanks to whip-smart writing that’s stood the test of time.

Christie opened the second half as A Ant, another one for the cognoscenti, making a point about the tedious stereotypes that still burden female comedians – but combined with lots of deliberately puns around the word ‘ant’.

As for Lee’s own stand-up, the first half comprised the best of his more recent material, and the second a chance to do something newer, which he (inaccurately) predicted wouldn’t go down too well. Like his book, his live comedy now seems to come with sizeable footnotes such as ‘that’s poor choice of material for the start of the show’ or ‘I’m going to try to sell that joke to Channel 4’s Stand Up For The Week as it shows the requisite contempt for the poor’.

The comedy around which this meta-comedy formed firstly involved middle-class middle-aged city people like himself moving to the country only to find themselves desperate for company and entertainment, and secondly and his hilariously provocative routine about Scottish hero William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace, the well-known gay paedophile, which Lee can entirely justify after discovering that he himself is genetically Scottish, in a fine take on the ridiculous arbitrary nature of national pride.

One extended routine dominated the second half, a typically esoteric, elaborate and largely made-up take on charity, his war veteran grandfather and why Russell Howard is responsible for dying children. It may be new material, but aside from a few uncertain moments when he was setting out his stall, it’s already gelling well, culminating in a tidy punchline – albeit one taken from one of his much older jokes – and even managing a joke at the expense of Amnesty International, the bastards.

This is all delivered with the mastery of repetition and pregnant pauses we expect of Lee, yet still with enough of a twist to defy those very expectations.

Talking of surprises, the first came at the end of the first half, when a vocal heckler started yelling from the stalls ‘Tell us a joke.’ He quickly revealed himself to be Richard Herring, who stormed the stage to Lee’s genuine astonishment: ‘You brought a ticket?’ he gasped

Herring proceeded to berate his former double-act partner for the lies in his memoirs (of sorts) and ripped the volume up in front of his bemused face. It was strange and funny, but over far too quickly, just a tantalising reminder of a great partnership.

The second surprise came towards the end as Eldon reappeared as Tony Rudd, the Seventies character he played in Look Around You who predicted the future of music in 2000 would be the futuristic track Machadaynu. And blow me if he wasn’t backed by Franz bloody Ferdinand – who also performed Do You Want To? and Take Me Out to the audience’s delight.

The band reappeared after the Frank Chickens to help Lee live out a rock star fantasy – performing the lead vocals for a sprightly cover version of a song from Boston punk outfit Mission of Burma. The title? That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate. A good title for a book, that…

Review date: 19 Aug 2010
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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