Gig  review: Jack Whitehall At Large | by Steve Bennett at the New Theatre, Oxford

Gig review: Jack Whitehall At Large

Note: This review is from 2017

by Steve Bennett at the New Theatre, Oxford

It’s a peculiarly British trait to have affection for the posh. Whatever their unfair advantages of birth or the entitlement that imbues, when the assuredness is undercut with a knowing self-disparagement or comic buffoonery, we forgive them a lot. It’s what Boris Johnson has built his career on. 

So you’d have to be a pretty strident class warrior not to be charmed by Jack Whitehall. Like Michael McIntyre before him, he celebrates his elevated Waitrose-shopping, Notting Hill lifestyle, but he is also so quick to mock his privilege, so full of apologetic cordiality and so dynamic a stand-up performer that he can win over almost any cynic.

Class, that irritant at the centre of so many comedy pearls, is brilliantly played up for laughs here. He admits he should be a card-carrying member of the ‘posh twats society’ but somehow finds himself advertising Asda. Somewhere you expect Micky Flanagan is in a recording booth wondering why he's plugging Asprey.

‘God, these stories are so relatable,’ Whitehall teases as he speaks of a black-tie party where he met Prince Harry. But he is not so far removed from normal life he can’t mock guilty sojourns to KFC or Subway, the sneers about such outlets that many secretly harbour only heightened through his social standing.

The delivery is camp and exaggeratedly animated as he strides the stage. At times – primarily when getting riled about the rigamarole of flying – he channels Rik Mayall’s heightened incredulity. Watered down a bit maybe (you feel this is a performance rather than reality), but the same outlandish outrage is at the core. 

Another part of the joke is that he believes himself to be better than the smutty tales and cheap gimmicks of stand-up – though of course he’s not, and the fact he can’t help himself adds both an extra layer of frustration a conspiratorial air of naughtiness that he’s confiding what he oughtn’t. That’s amplified by the tales he tells out of school of his real-life mates. His voice work playing a troll might have been cut from the finished version of Frozen, as he’s mentioned before, but he can still be a troll of the internet variety in real life.

The Frozen story comes up because he wants to be considered as a proper actor, you see. Shades of Hancock or Kenneth Williams here, as, like them, his ambitions seem destined to be thwarted because he’s consigned to play the fool. His purported rivalry with drama schoolmate Robert Pattinson is revived to contrast his own as-yet unsuccessful attempts to crack Hollywood with the Twilight star’s international brooding heartthrob status.

It fuels Whitehall’s persona of a man struggling to find his place outside his elevated bubble, mock-aggravated when everything isn’t handed to him on a plate. It’s effective even if – or maybe because – is surely a simplified caricature of the truth. The real world doesn’t puncture the theatre's cocoon: no nasty outside politics, no intense self-scrutiny that the fashionably edgy comedians go for. For example he talks about being so unadventurous he daren’t toke a spliff in Amsterdam in case he’s recognised, failing to mention a public drug-taking incident did once make the tabloids. There’s also the faint shadow that his time cooped up in a lonely, impersonal and inappropriate Disney hotel as he tried to break the States at the behest of his bullshitting American agent may have been tough, but that stays very much in the background of the cheery jokes about how ridiculous it all was.

For At Large is based upon easy social chit-chat, a series of go-to routines that make him friends, whether it’s anecdotes about stag do lads on tour, confessing to all his immature behaviours or showing us his embarrassing passport photo, that universal ice-breaker. 

These foundations may be slight, but his clear persona and charismatic character – not to mention a brisk and efficient script that keeps strong gags coming – make for an irresistible combination.  

Ultimately, Whitehall’s knowing self-mockery resonates with all. So while it’s mainstream, it’s a better class of mainstream.

Review date: 17 Jan 2017
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Oxford New Theatre

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