Stewart Lee: Basic Lee | Review of the comic's new stand-up show at Leicester Square Theatre © Steve Ullathorne
review star review star review star review star review blank star

Stewart Lee: Basic Lee

Review of the comic's new stand-up show at Leicester Square Theatre

It’s a reviewers’ cliché to call something a masterclass of comedy, but Stewart Lee’s latest show is almost literally that, as he gives what can loosely be described as a lecture in the artform: talking about writing material in part one, performing it in part two.

His whole career has been underpinned by doing comedy about comedy – and Basic Lee is the most explicit expression of that yet, from the meta-humour of babbling out sounds in the rhythm of a joke he can’t be arsed to write, to his favourite sport of teasing fellow comics. In the firing line this time are Frankie Boyle, Richard Herring and Kevin Bridges – who gets the backhanded compliment of being ‘one of the nicest guys in stand-up … though that’s a very low bar’. 

The show – billed as Lee’s most pared-down in some while – starts and ends with material which he wrote in September 1989, and which he has wheeled out pretty much every time he’s been required to do a circuit-style set ever since, primarily riffing around the evangelical Christians who called at his door to tell him: ‘The answer is Jesus.’

Given that Lee likes comparing his work to jazz, this could be likened to him refreshing an old standard, mainly through the context of how audacious is to be doing 32-year-old material – original references still intact.

As always, acknowledging all the tricks he’s using is key to the comedy, as he confesses he’s now at the point where it doesn’t matter whether the jokes land, as he can win laughs ‘on the rebound’ just by analysing how it went. Some of the biggest laughs of the night are for sentences that are objectively not funny. Getting laughs from explaining why he’s not getting laughs, it’s the perfect ruse.

Still, Lee has gone to the trouble of writing gags, including some suitably acerbic ones about Liz Truss and her Cabinet that will have a shorter shelf-life than a tub of yellow-sticker coleslaw. He makes a display of reading the gags from cards, since learning them is not worth the investment, given their targets are likely to be gone soon.

No lesson in stand-up would be complete without examples of the act-out, and here Lee shows a hitherto suppressed talent for voices, especially when becoming a pompous, self-satisfied Tory MP challenging Keir Starmer on gender issues.

Later. he aims his satirical sneer at another smug archetype: his own artsy clever-dick liberal fans. He portrays then, not unfairly, as a predominantly male constituency who love mansplaining his work, and who find elitist joy in finding it more significant than funny. And who, of course, would love being the target of such sniping. Same, perhaps, as those critics who Lee takes pot-shots out at press night, yet still give him glowing reviews. Those idiots…

Stew Lee live on stage with his Basic Lee tour at Leicester Square Theatre

Another chunky section mocks the notion that no one in comedy had considered addressing the audience until Phoebe Waller-Bridge did it in Fleabag. The germ of this idea was in  an early version of his last tour Snowflake/Tornado, but has now been developed to a ridiculous extreme in the way only Lee can. Of course, it’s torturous and self-indulgent, but asking Lee not to be torturous and self-indulgent would be like asking Tim Vine to go easy on the puns.

And the repetition here is as nothing compared to the routine towards the end of the evening when he pretends to envy the normal life of his audience, then mimics the mundane, platitudinous exchanges of office life, day-in, day-out, day-in, day-out, day-in, day-out… drawing every ounce of soulless tedium from it.

Lee can only subvert comedy tropes by being on top of them, of course, and he even channels Max Miller in the most postmodern, 21st Century way. While the vaudevillian Cheeky Chappie would always maintain that any double entendres were in the filthy minds of his audience, Lee talks about JK Rowling while firmly insisting he’s not addressing her views on transgenderism. ‘It isn’t about that.’ he protests firmly and – true to type – repeatedly, fearful of falling foul of the radicalised users of Mumsnet while giving a big metaphorical wink to the audience.

By his own admission, Lee is still working things through in this show – which runs at Leicester Square Theatre until mid-December before its UK tour taking him through to early 2024. But while several sections are looser and less surprising than you’d expect from a Stewart Lee show, there’s much fun to be had with him playing with the audience and with his reputation for being erudite, inaccessible and stony-faced.

For those reasons and more, any review is largely redundant. This is peak Stewart Lee, so if you like him, you’ll love this. If he’s so far passed you by, this is unlikely to be the gateway show into his sarcastic world.

 » Stewart Lee tour dates

Review date: 28 Sep 2022
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.