Al Murray: The Only Way Is Epic

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s probably not the most appropriate adjective, but here's a sobering thought: a baby born when Al Murray first performed the Pub Landlord would now be legally able to buy a pint.

And in his latest tour, Al Murray takes the bar motif to an unintended new level: for The Only Way Is Epic is exactly like one of those nights down the boozer which starts off as brilliant craic, with hilarious, fast-flowing banter, but ends up sucking you in for too long, until you wind up cornered by an insistent, persistent guy who just won’t shut up.

Ultimately,‘epic’ applies more to the length of this show than the quality – for what should be a sleek 75 minutes is presented as a flabby two-and-bit hours, plus interval.

The first 20 minutes or so are blistering, though. No one works a room like Murray, and Dartford provides as rich pickings as ever. Half the audience seem to be lookalikes: sturdy bald-headed men who turn out to have the sort of no-nonsense jobs the Guv’nor approves of: chippies, soldiers, nurses, drivers. Only the feckless househusband lets the side down.

Murray sets up numerous running jokes, keeping them all going like spinning plates. His quick insults pull no punches, but are done with obvious affection, in the spirit of mates’ conversations the land over – but never as sharp as this. Whenever an easy joke presents itself, he leaves it hanging, letting the audience join the jots, or approaches it from a different angle, to avoid stating the obvious.

His character might be the decent, honest, hard-working, sensible, down-to-earth British working-class bloke, but in real life, of course, Al Murray holds an Oxford MA in modern history… an interest that’s put to excellent use in his bombastic rundown of all the Prime Ministers of the past century or so, that’s mighty impressive and produces a nice contrast with his supposedly knuckle-headed alter ego.

The point is this: That today Britain is broken, with ‘children who want to be adults and adults who want to be children’; producing a pandered, workshy society in which no one takes any responsibility for their lives. But never fear, the Guv’s here to show us the error of our ways and set us onto a righteous path.

He seems to want a return to the values of Seventies sitcoms, where a bloke can admire a lady’s derriere – with good old English restraint, of course – and the girls should giggle coquettishly at the compliment. Naturally, he makes us act out the scenario; how else will we learn?

There’s also advice on fatherhood – theoretical rather than practical, given his character’s sad back-story about visitation rights. Again this depends on audience participation as he makes us all pledge to pass down vital advice to ground the dreams of the next generation; a pledge that goes on far, far, far longer than it needs to. He’s deliberately playing with the audience’s patience, but he plays with it so much that it breaks.

Indeed, over-repetition and dragging out simple points over several minutes of portentious oratory is an over-used trick. He quietens the room and sets up, in painstakingly minute steps, an atmosphere which suggests he’s going to impart some profound wisdom which – wouldn’t you know it – turns out to be utterly trivial. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

Thus he describes such threats to civilisation as the vajazzle, another over-long segment which is a thin disguise for loads of silly euphemisms for the ladygarden. There are puerile laughs to be had here – and absolutely nothing wrong with that – but again he labours the point.

On a more wider scale, he accepts the eurozone crisis is far more complicated than anyone could possible explain. It would certainly be far too simplistic to explain in terms of national stereotypes, he teases. We all know what’s coming, but it’s very well done, with Murray again drawing on his education with an informative chunk on Greek’s past that proving that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

There are moments like this that are classic Murray – including a lovely take on Scottish devolution – peppered with back references to the audience members he singled out at the start. Plus this show is far more enjoyable for being in the intimate confines of a theatre than his rally-like arena tour of 2009.

But there’s an awful lot of flannel in between the good stuff. He wouldn’t get away with watering down his beer this much.

Review date: 29 Sep 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Dartford Orchard Theatre

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