Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

He might be 6ft 7in, but Stephen Merchant has long been in someone else’s shadow. ‘His Nibs’ as he calls him, or ‘you-know-who’. But in his long-awaited debut stand-up tour, The Office co-creator doesn’t just establish himself as a comedian in his own right, but proves he deserves a place among the best.

Boldly inviting the press to review him in Ricky Gervais’s home town of Reading further tempts comparisons, although there aren’t really that many. They both have a certain on-stage arrogance, that’s true, but where his colleague’s persona is high-status, hiding behind a phoney irony, Merchant’s is low. It’s made abundantly clear he’s got nothing with which to back up his air of superiority, being a pedantic, penny-pinching geek who got lucky with a sitcom or two. No wonder he can’t find a wife, the avowed aim of this show.

For those who don’t know who he is – ‘as if!’ he indignantly harrumphs – he digs out some press clippings, supposedly positive, but inadvertently humiliating. He’s always the loser, you see, as reinforced when he shares with us how his brobdingnagian height has informed his personality, making him both arrogant and self-consciously insecure. Sounds like the perfect storm of psychological flaws any comedian needs.

On the topic of his height, he avoids any cliché, as he does throughout this resolutely entertaining show, delivered in that charmingly modest West Country burr that’s so disarming it can even give a bank a friendly tone.

Even on subjects that might appear familiar, such as porn in the age before broadband, or a geek-friendly routine about Venn diagrams, Merchant finds his own path. The weakest material he has, probably the routines about cinema-goers annoyingly munching popcorn or the iniquity of splitting restaurant bills, is still solid.

But when his material shines, he really shines. One story is particularly brilliant; a tale of being trapped at a wedding reception with a dull woman, her insufferable husband and their hyperactive toddler that would make the ideal sitcom scene, complete with memorable visual gag and perfect pay-off. You see why he’s done so well on the telly, even if teaming up with Gervais meant shelving what would clearly have been an impressive stand-up career.

This point is conclusively proved with the final section, where he shows the women in the audience who ‘wouldn’t mind a piece of Steve’ what they can expect in the bedroom. Logistics alone are quite some challenge, as he deftly demonstrates with a microphone stand substituting for the ‘lucky’ lady, of average stature. ‘I thought it was going to be classier than this, as well,’ he laments, as he catches himself miming in flagrante, but the wanton abandonment of decorum is what makes it so funny.

The most hilarious moment, though, will be seared on your mind’s eye forever: the close-up image of what his face would look like bearing down on you. It sure sends a shiver down the spine and explains, in the well-chosen language he always employs, why there’s ‘not a lot of repeat business back at Chez Steve’.

The same surely can’t be said of this show, which is more than good enough to justify a return ticket. Even when the straight stand-up’s finished there’s another treat, an encore which takes the familiar sketch-show trope of bad, over-earnest acting and makes it into a scene which ramps up the cringeworthy laughs with every deliberately clunky line.

If they gave out Golden Globes for stand-up, Merchant would surely have something else to squeeze into his already packed trophy cabinet.

Review date: 14 Sep 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Reading Hexagon

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