Mark Steel's In Town

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

Mark Steel has made a virtue of the road comedian’s life. Rather than seeing his tour as a dreary series of identikit chain hotels interspersed with Ginsters pasties, he has set out to really get to know the towns he plays.

This curiosity to seek out unlikely destinations – Handsworth, Gateshead, Basingstoke, Wigan – to determine what makes them special has served him well with a fourth radio series based on this idea currently in production.

Tonight, though, he’s lucked out, playing the genuine tourist site of Bath, with its Roman spa, Georgian architecture and – most excitingly for the audience in the Komedia – a forthcoming Waitrose.

Steel’s visibly disappointed at the enthusiasm the opening of a supermarket engenders, especially as this show is a celebration of the quirky things that give towns a sense of identity in a nation of increasingly homogenised High Streets, where the same corporate names are just rearranged in a different order.

This is about as political as the renowned Leftie gets. Rather than banging a socialist drum, he more subtly promotes the idea of community that lies behind his ideology, and so appeals for the broader Middle England crowd you get when you’re a star of Radio 4 and columnist with The Independent.

A good chunk of the first half reflects that audience’s concerns back at them. Steel is surprised to find himself over 50 – and suddenly lumped by marketing men into an amorphous ’50-plus’ demographic of tea-dancing grave-dodgers – and struggling with a grumpy, uncommunicative, living-the-cliche, 16-year-old son.

Steel fears he used to rant because he was right; but now rants simply because he’s old, getting furious at the bad manners of internet trolls, the baffling ritual of ordering at Subway, the frustrations of call centres or the advances of technology. There’s nothing too original about the causes of his ire, but he vents it in magnificent displays of splenetic rage, which he uses only sparingly... more’s the pity, as they really hit home when he unleashes them.

He tops each half with a few bits of information and observations he’s gleaned about Bath, scoring points with the locals for having spent some time getting to know the place (though mistakenly thinking it has a cathedral causes audible disgruntlement). In the gazetteer of obscure information that he’s surely compiling about the UK, the fact that Haile Selassie lived here in the Thirties must top the Bath entry.

This audience is generally understated when it comes to engaging him with information about the town – but at least they understand the premise. Steel reveals that in Winchester a man approached him after the show to tell him: ‘Lucky you were here, considering how much material you’ve got on Winchester.’

Truth be told, Steel’s only does a Wikipedia-level superficial job on Bath - though it’s clearly more than most comics do – and in the second half he takes us around the rest of the country in appreciation of the quirks that give character. Even those living somewhere as apparently featureless as Walsall in the West Midlands find something to make its own – an unspectacular concrete hippopotamus, as it happens. Steel’s soulless home town of Swanley in Kent proves a tougher challenge, but even so he finds glimmers of idiosyncrasy.

Such facts are interesting, primarily, but presented with a side-order of funny as Steel sneaks some wry one-liners into his passionate monologue. However, this is not an over-polished show; but rather a feelgood rallying cry celebrating what makes Britain great – even when it’s a bit shit. Especially when it's a bit shit.

Review date: 26 Oct 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Bath Komedia

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