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Simon Amstell: Numb

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

In the real world, Simon Amstell doesn’t function all that well, with almost every human encounter defined by toe-curling awkwardness. But on stage, he has an emotional honesty, beautifully articulated, which gives him an endearing vulnerability that would warm a heart of granite.

In Numb, he returns to his familiar feelings of loneliness, depression and his disconnection from the rest of society, a living embodiment of the tortured clown – smart and funny on the telly but at home facing endless days of nothingness, with only his cat for company. Such is the lot of the brooding, misunderstood poet he considers himself to be.

As compelling as this angst is, his dates at the Melbourne comedy festival, coming in the run-up to a UK tour, have something of a ‘work-in-progress’ feel to them. They are a series of stand-up routines linked only by his anxious insecurities, but no coherent beginning, middle, or end.

The frustratingly fragmented style means that, for example, although much of the hour is about his abject solitude, mentions of an unexplained boyfriend start popping up towards the end, while he concludes that finding joy might be the meaning of life, his angsty existence (and indeed comedy) is far from joyous, even if it is truthful.

He baffles the audience when he leaps into an anecdote about some weird, hallucinogenic new-agey Peruvian jungle therapy without any of the explanation the extreme situation demands. It’s a rather odd section in any case, intent on conveying an otherworldly magical realism, but coming across as a friend telling you about a bizarre dream they had.

Despite the structural flaws, the insightful personal philosophies, densely packed into the hour, will stay with you, whether it be on the ways people stave off the emptiness of existence or simply the gender stereotypes we assign to babies before they are even born.

In his typically confessional navel-gazing, Amstell concludes that his personal enforced solitude comes from his attraction to the trendy but humourless, the irony-free Shoreditch Nathan Barleys who are immune to his conversational superpowers of being ‘funny and shy’ – and even the magic tricks he learned as a child loner. But despite such emotional blocks, there is an unsure optimism that somehow this confusing life might, against all odds, turn out OK.

The same could be said of the show. Just a small magical catalyst could make the wryly funny commentary, inventive thoughts and intense soul-searching amount to a truly brilliant, well-constructed show – but until then, its absence is very noticeable. Fingers crossed it’s discovered before the UK run.

Nonetheless, the combination of Amstell’s frankness and delicate charisma means that even though he makes no effort to directly engage with the audience, he still hold us transfixed.

Review date: 15 Apr 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Melbourne International Comedy Festival

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