Stewart Francis: Outstanding In His Field

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

Even this 999-channel digital age, telly still has an immense power for a comedian. Before Mock The Week, Stewart Francis was a circuit favourite, performing tight sets of exquisite one-liners honed over a decade on stage in clubs the world over. Now, thanks to the recognition of a thousand Dave reruns, the deadpan Canadian wordwright has the pulling power to tour theatres.

But such a schedule greedily demands a new hour of material every year – a big ask when each joke is distilled to just a few seconds. There is an inevitable trade-off in quality, with this new show requiring some less inventive gags to fill his allotted time, but his top lines remain things of beauty. In these, he practises origami with language, folding meanings on themselves to make exquisite gifts you couldn’t imagine being made from such simple components.

Often punsmiths forcibly shove words into new contexts to elicit the laugh – and Francis isn’t above that. But often the joy here are in sentences that make perfect sense at face value, with the joke lying in the wry double meaning.

He’s also widened his subject matter from neutral, impersonal statements to also include pops at a familiar TV targets such as Top Gear, Loose Women and Peter Andre. Maybe that’s the influence of working on Mock The Week, but it doesn’t seem too gratuitous, for when the real-life references hit home, they adds impact to the punchlines. His description of Ed Miliband, for example, as ‘looking like a security guard who’s just heard a noise in the warehouse’ is both a delight and a devastatingly accurate way of undermining the Labour leader.

Francis’s casual delivery makes no fanfare of the gags, just a quiet pause to let the wordplay or imagery sink in. He does have a wider range of performance skills, but only ever reveals glimpses of his talents for singing or silly voices, all part of the ‘less is more’ ethos.

It’s probably just part of his self-effacing shtick to complain about an uncommunicative audience – just as he makes jokes at the expense of his own ‘timewasting trickery’ – but the atmosphere tonight is one of gentle enjoyment punctuated with the occasional guffaw, as there are indeed lulls between the best gags.

But as the show gallops towards the end, the quality becomes more consistent, including a wonderfully silly subversion of the Q&A sessions certain comedians insist on doing at the end of their shows. But there’s no question that when on-form, Francis’s gags among the very best.

Review date: 3 May 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: High Wycombe Swan

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