Frank Skinner: 30 Years Of Dirt in the West End | Review of the comic's show at the Gielgud Theatre
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Frank Skinner: 30 Years Of Dirt in the West End

Review of the comic's show at the Gielgud Theatre

To deploy the cliché ‘he makes it look effortless’ can’t do justice to how instinctive the mechanics of stand-up are to Frank Skinner.

Brilliantly spontaneous crowd work seems to arise as naturally as breathing, which he weaves seamlessly into his material. Without ever seeming to break out of natural conversation, he will build a story with pithy turns of phrase and a perfectly timed symphony of pause, build and release to have you snorting with laughter.

He plays down his status, billing himself as a ‘once-great comedian’ or telling us ‘I used to be fucking massive’ all in the way of suggesting he isn’t now. He lies, but he needs to be on the level of the ordinary bloke, even in the field of stand-up, where he could rightly claim a place in the pantheon.

His worldview is tainted by a touch of cynicism, but of not of the corrosive kind. He’s being the realist, accepting that a long-term relationship inevitably loses its passion (and its blow-jobs) and that he never really fitted in with the rarefied world of celebrity, more at home in the dodgy Smethwick pubs of his youth than finding himself getting an MBE from Princess Anne.

Oh, and he also came into the orbit of the theatrical royalty that is Sir Tim Rice. This encounter is a truly priceless yarn, glorious in its befuddling absurdity. It certainly cracked me up, even though I’d heard it before, when Skinner premiered this show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

There, where these things are supposed to matter more, the  hour had a stronger theme about him trying to clean up his act at 67, though that’s diluted now with the longer running time. But if there’s any comic who doesn’t need to prop up his material with the grand architecture of a high-concept show, it’s Skinner. Besides, it would be anathema to his perfectly naturalistic style.

Needless to say, he has spectacularly failed to beat his compulsion to being drawn to the knob gag. This show includes the phrase ‘Kim Jong Un’s sweaty little erection’ and a story about some DIY veterinary work he once did on a dog’s anal glands, to name but two examples. 

Like that other great West Midlands comic, Tony Hancock, Skinner’s ambition for artistic sophistication remains forever thwarted – an unpublished novel that tried to stretch out a decent one-liner to an 80,000-word story or the critically mauled play he took to the Edinburgh Fringe. 

But of course they are. In his stand-up, he cannot be too big for his boots nor have any whiff of pretension – even if in real life he’s written well-received books about poetry and prayer, and has a rare command of his chosen artform. 

Analogies are a particular forte – whether on unfruitful audience interaction or Ronaldo’s chiselled abs. His imagery is powerfully vivid – often to a worryingly detailed extent, wherein lies the gag.

One extended fairground metaphor contrasts the blunt-force, alpha-male stand-up scene of the 1990s with today’s more delicate sensibilities. Skinner flourishes in both, wielding the scalpel as masterfully as the bludgeon, and moving with the times. He’s certainly no whiney ‘anti-woke’ critic complaining of what you’re no longer ‘allowed’ to say. In fact, he has the perfect riposte.

After a relentless battering of hilarity, Skinner does take his foot off the gas in the home straight of Thirty Years Of Dirt  (at least before the encore), though he’s done more than enough to earn that right, both in this show and over his career that far outstretched the titular pun.

For there’s no shortage of proper punchlines here – even a brilliantly twisted image of a damaged, deranged boyfriend going off the rails has one, adding a powerful tag to the powerful laugh he gets from the absurdity.

That said, he’s not too proud for a groanworthy gag. But it will always be an excellently crafted one. At such moments, he likens himself to a blacksmith, the master of a dying craft toiling away at the anvil of comedy to hammer out a robust joke. 

When most of the laughs seem to emerge so naturally, it’s a reminder of the graft that goes into that artful illusion.

Frank Skinner: 30 Years of Dirt is at the Gielgud Theatre until February 17, before going on tour in March. Frank ​Skinner tour dates

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Review date: 7 Feb 2024
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Gielgud Theatre

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