Alexei Sayle | By Steve Bennett at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Alexei Sayle

Note: This review is from 2013

By Steve Bennett at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Alexei Sayle hadn’t done stand-up for 17 years for fear of what his wife Linda calls ‘diluting the legacy’: the idea that he’s held in such esteem now because so few people saw him back in the day. When a legend is untainted by evidence, a comeback can only disappoint.

He needn’t have worried. The flames of passion are not so easily extinguished, and his flashes of righteous rage at disappointing politicians and bland comedians come from the heart. And for a fat Scouser who’s just turned 60, he doesn’t half move – bouncing around the stage like a man possessed as he spits out the expletives, or simply acts the fool.

The hour’s not relentlessly full-on – that would exhaust both us and him – although his default setting is loud and forceful, even when telling us a story about being in Miss Marple.

For alongside the more opinionated outbursts, ‘audience with...’ style showbiz anecdotes form part of his shtick, now he’s settled into being an actor and an author, but always with an edge. He remains the outsider, baffled or annoyed by the celebrity culture he sometimes engages with – and is very keen to distance himself from the rest of it.

Particular venom is reserved for the modern generation of comedians who he thinks squandered the alternative comedy principles he pioneered to peddle bland observations or to rub shoulders with ‘war criminals’ like Alastair Campbell on cosy panel shows. Bitter? Possibly – especially when it comes to discussing his long-standing bad blood with Ben Elton – but it’s harnessed for funny.

He is inevitably trading on an old reputation, forged in a more febrile age of ideological showdown. Yet although his audience has largely aged with him, Sayle vows: ‘I don’t want to be nostalgic...’

Indeed, this show would appeal across generations. Comedy is all about attitude, and that’s what Sayle has in spades. This old Marxist’s unwavering – some might say obstinate – views make him relevant. He’s established enough that he doesn’t need to start making compromises now.

Nevertheless, for those who do remember his heyday, there are routines on various highlights of his career, such as his novelty hit Ullo John Got A New Motor which became something of a millstone. Some of these don’t pack the punch of his angrier moments, as Sayle has become affable company. Now when he wants a system smashed, he’ll ask charmingly.

Essentially, he’s not confined by any single approach to stand-up. Yes, there’s the pointed diatribes, but then this comic revolutionary is quite happy to do a old-school gag that starts ‘this blind elephant and this blind hippo go into a pub...’ before segueing into a routine about a massacre during the war in the Lebanon.

Sayle might have come a long way since the Soho strip club where he hosted the first Comedy Store shows, but while the trappings of the gig have changed now he’s in the cultured Southbank Centre, the heart is still there, even if in slightly more mellowed packaging. It’s good to have him back.

Review date: 6 Jul 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Queen Elizabeth Hall

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