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Henning Wehn: My Struggle

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Jay Richardson

Performing stand-up in a second language is ‘a right old struggle’ according to Henning Wehn, explaining a title that translates as Mein Kampf. Yet the self-styled German Comedy Ambassador makes it look simple with a show that stretches to puns, whimsy and even, shock-horror, self-deprecation, those supposedly quintessentially British comedic tools that are some way from being the most impressive in his repertoire.

In his eight years on the UK circuit, Wehn has developed beyond a novelty. His recent Edinburgh collaborations with Otto Kuhnle have kept him safely within his comfort zone, the endearingly madcap physical routines of Düsseldorf’s foremost variety act overshadowing the stand-up, never permitting him to take his time and tease out his observations as he does here.

Wehn still barks out the sort of bigotry that a British comic would need to work harder to justify, denouncing Greeks as ‘fucking lazy’ and East Germans as freeloaders. Yet these are chiefly set-ups for a thoughtful plea not to over-estimate the economic benefits of losing World War II and one in a sequence of observations on tolerance, a virtue smug Brits probably shouldn’t be so quick to claim for the national psyche.

He begins predictably, attributing the gig’s late start to Scottish inefficiency, welcoming us to his ‘bunker’ cellar venue, before revealing, in a touching but double-edged way, that Kuhnle is otherwise engaged with his newborn son. As he runs through the possible show titles hReich-on-Tour probably deserves a run out at a later date – you appreciate just how easy it would be for him to pander to and reinforce national stereotypes, like the Billericay audience who once greeted him en masse in gaffer-taped Hitler moustaches.

Granted, his chief preoccupations remain the war and football. But he fully appreciates the importance of these subjects to Britain, their propping up of a shaky moral high ground and sense of self-esteem. He contrives a brilliant routine whereby pensioners in this country are recast as Nazi heroes, an exercise in topsy-turveydom that superbly showcases the potentially penetrating insight of the detached, observant foreigner.

Wehn’s compliments and insults are equally of a pattern, shaking the listener’s most strongly held convictions, not least that English-speaking nations hold a monopoly on humour. Nevertheless, he appreciates the rich subtlety of our language, its slippery vagueness and capacity to mislead, employing it to comment on the seemingly unassailable truth that someone who dies in a British soldier’s uniform is a hero, no matter if they’ve proved themselves an idiot.

Devastatingly for his fellow comics, he’s one of the few I’ve seen engaging politically at the Fringe, having a square go at Scottish sectarianism through the unintended irony of a Bobby Sands football chant for the local cuisine. More damningly, he exposes the lie that the Edinburgh Fringe is a Scottish festival and not predominantly London’s community of performers uprooted and transplanted with their Londoncentric material, hammering at the fault line of Hadrian’s Wall to passionately condemn English arrogance and sense of entitlement.

Throughout, there’s a mischievous glint in his eye, but real conviction too, as when he berates us for the laziness of our xenophobia, explaining to a schoolteacher no less why yes, he’d rather be a Kraut than a Paki. Comedy might be a struggle for Wehn but he’s fighting the good fight and undoubtedly winning.

Review date: 25 Aug 2010
Reviewed by: Jay Richardson

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