Stewart Lee: A Room With A Stew

Only a week late, but finally the chance to sit down and write some stuff.

I’ve liked Stewart Lee for a long time, back from the first Fist of Fun episodes I heard on Radio 1 in the early 1990s (I wasn’t really aware of goodies like Lionel Nimrod or their work on On The Hour then), but this was the first time I’d actually managed to see Stew in the flesh. Just a week before I’d seen his erstwhile partner Richard Herring for a third time (very funny as per, incidentally), so was looking forward to a bit of slightly trainspotter-y completism.

This show was all about working up material in half-hour or so chunks for the fourth series of Comedy Vehicle, which is due to air later this year, As a result it differed fairly markedly in pacing and structure from a usual stage show. But in many ways this was not too important. The only real test was: was he funny. Well, yes, Yes he was. Very, very funny indeed.

If you’ve listened to any/much of Lee’s material before, you’ll realise that it’s a fairly complex, dense multi-layered affair. There are several layers of irony and misdirection, starting with who this “Stewart Lee” person is in the first place. Most of the time, he is “the comedian Stewart Lee”, an avatar of all the imagined neuroses and petty prejudices both we and he imagine he lives with. When he puts this carapace on he deals in rhythm and repetition, so that a riff about the infamously splenetic Rod Liddle is strung out into an hysterical list of stains (trust me, it works). At the start of each segment, there’s a brief glance to the watch to check timing, and he’s off, goading the audience at their inability to laugh at the correct jokes at the right times, and missing all the best bits.

Between sequences, he breaks the fourth wall a bit and stops being “the comedian Stewart Lee”, to speak to the audience in more relaxed terms, talking about the last time he was in town (at an open air gig with Jack Whitehall), the theatre space in the Spa complex, and also the jackets in the dressing rooms for Billy Pearce’s summer season. It looks like he’s actually enjoying the experience. The audience certainly is, and is in on the joke of this confrontational persona he creates, constantly telling us it’s not supposed to be funny, and that he doesn’t want laughter, he wants knowing nods and sardonic chuckles to measure his worth. It doesn’t work; we laugh like drains. It’s great to see a true craftsman at work, someone who is properly, properly good at what he does. It’ll be interesting to see how much the finished material differs from what he showed us. I look forward to it.

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