Ben Elton Live 2019 | Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Nottingham Playhouse
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Ben Elton Live 2019

Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Nottingham Playhouse

What is Ben Elton’s place in the world? At 60 years old and 15 years away from the front line of live comedy, can the stand-up who made his name by being radical and relevant still cut it?

That's a question even he’s not sure he can answer. In his return to the stage, he manages to be both radical and reactionary. He can welcome the notion that there are multiple genders, but that there are multiple types of gin triggers full-on grumpy old man meltdown.

Many comics of a certain vintage have dug their heels in amid seismic social shifts, sticking to their outdated guns and insisting those who challenge them are snowflakes. Elton’s to be commended for being more open-minded and accepting his flaws.

His take on the cancel culture and notions that ‘you can’t say anything any more’ is to examine his own record. He saves social justice warriors the effort of scouring his old statements to find anything dubious, with the comedian of 2019 calling his former self out for routines that were acceptable in the 1980s.

With new woke-tinted spectacles on, he finds issue with a 1987 routine in which he imagined ’what if men menstruated?’ and now accepts that they can. He thought sexuality was hardwired, which at the time helped make a joke of the small-minded Clause 28 that thought homosexuality could be taught. Now he accepts that it’s fluid.

Despite this, Elton’s not as clued-up as he’d hope to be. For example, an an opening salvo about ‘identifying’ as very funny and insisting anyone who denies that is committing a hate crime, is pretty much adopting the sort of Clarksonesque stance that he later mocks.

He’s a smart enough comic to acknowledge both the ambiguity of his position and the hypocrisy of him being yet another white, middle-aged, heterosexual men mansplaining the situation. This is a ‘limp, wrinkly Caucasian scrotum of a show’, in his own words.

But he’s well-intentioned and has a voice that others in the tolerant end of the older demographic, who don’t want to turn into scared reactionaries, might heed. Meanwhile, he also pleads for some tolerance from the younger generation for those slow in accepting a new world, having been brought up with centuries-old orthodoxies. 

All this is fascinating and well-judged, even if the comedy is patchier because of the uncertainties. Still, Elton finds laughs as he picks his way through the social minefield, making much of the jeopardy that one false statement means his career’s toast.

This is but one strand of a show that’s over-stuffed with both content and point of view. Although he explicitly sets out his theme as not understand things and even ‘not getting what I used to get’, that’s so broad that nothing in his two-and-a-half hour show need be edited to fit.

Being socially progressive is one thing. He’s more of a stick-in-the-mud fogey when it comes to new-tangled music, craft beers, poncy breads and the loss of the salt cellar in swanky restaurants. 

He even grumbles that there’s too much sex on TV. Who would have thought this firebrand would have turned into a modern-day Mary Whitehouse, even if he’s quite happy to talk about ‘finger-fucking’ in Gentleman Jack? He thinks the BBC is being driven by a radical gender identity agenda... but at least he’s more in favour of that turn of events than the average Daily Mail reader.

He frequently mixes the serious with the flippant. For instance, he revives a very old trope about what sort of music will be considered nostalgic in the care homes of the future that has been knocked around various comedians since the days of punk. Elton updates the reference to Khia’s My Neck, My Back... though the fact that ‘update’ is 18 years old is telling in itself.

Yet this rather hoary routine comes in the context of speaking of his father’s Alzheimer’s disease – or ‘Alz’ in the sort of slangy costermonger’s patter that Elton’s always deployed. His father's suffering and recent death has focussed the comic’s mind on assisted dying… a sombre moment he undercuts with a silly, tension-relieving quip as the show heads into the interview.

For all his reputation for ‘a little bit of politics’, the ‘what’s the deal with?’ observational comedy is where his still-burning passion and incredulous humour work best together: the fed-up bloke complaining about the inconsequential, with a totally disproportionate rage and stomping around the stage with the exaggerated petulance of yore.

In fact, some of the party politics he covers are superficial and/or preachy. It certainly sometimes it feels like he’s addressing a party conference, with measured applause breaks filling pauses deliberately left for them, their duration based on agreement with his views rather than anything funny. That feeling is heightened by the fact on this first British date proper, he delivers some key passages from behind a lectern, using notes.

Other political jokes are soft, such as countering Michael Gove’s ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ quote by asking if he’d feel quite the same way about getting medical attention. That was the sort of gag going around when the made the dangerous comments two years ago, and feels dated now, hower much it feeds into Elton’s ultimate narrative.

In the interests of balance, Elton has a great snipe at Jeremy Corbyn, deployed in the cause of his main political takedown: that it’s a myth Boris Johnson is amusing. Exhibit A is that the Prime Ministers ‘mugwump’ insult at his opponent didn’t work on any comedic level.

Elton, as he’s very fond of telling us, is an expert on what’s funny, frequently boasting of his hits on screen and stage and in print. Yet for all this, there is something irritating to him that means he has never achieved the national treasure status of contemporaries such as Dawn French, Rik Mayall, or even Alexei Sayle, who was always far more politically radical. This new tour might not fix that, but it should reassert his credentials as a useful stand-up, still relevant after all these years.

The personal attack on Boris includes the bombsheel revelation that for all he hated what ‘Thatch’ stood for, at least Elton respected that she had principles, unlike the self-serving current occupant of No 10

This yields to a more heartfelt plea not to descend back to the dark ages, when facts are irrelevant, where august, thoughtful institutions are dismissed with Nazi-propaganda phrases like ‘enemies of the people’. It’s a conclusion that's easy to come to, but Elton gives in emotional and intellectual impact. ’Sometimes I’m too depressed to write dick jokes.’ he muses in closing. Which is a shame, cos they’re the best bits…

Ben Elton is on tour until December 20. Dates.

Review date: 1 Oct 2019
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Nottingham Playhouse

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