COMEDY / Spinning more than a line: Tristan Davies on the surreal ramblings of Eddie Izzard at the Shaw Theatre

Click to follow
THERE were a few arguments at the interval. 'No, that one was from 'The Wolves'.' 'Yes but he used it in the fox-hunting sketch.' 'The hymns were new. Weren't they?' No one could say for sure. Four or five of the predominantly college audience were gathered around a table in an impromptu seminar upon the life and lines of Eddie Izzard, current star of the live comedy circuit.

Eddie Izzard has built up quite a following among students of comedy. That they see him time and time again is because he always has something new to say. His is not a routine as such. He spins as many old yarns as any script-fed comic, but he takes the trouble to unravel and weave them into new material, apparently before your very eyes.

If there was ever a script, Izzard appears to have ripped it up long ago. As he has grown in confidence and stature - he is perhaps the only fringe comedian without regular television exposure who can fill a theatre, though even he was struggling on one of the hottest nights of the year - he has realised that it matters less what you say than how you say it.

Which is as well, since very little of what he says makes any conventional sense. While there is a semblance of order to his method, madness is never far behind. A story about a road trip starts simply enough, with observations about British and French driving. But before you know it a dog has taken over the wheel and Izzard is off on an entirely different track that leads, via an analysis of phrasebooks (' 'Hello. Where are the toilets? Goodbye.' That's an entire holiday for some people'), to a lesson in French syntax, by the end of which you realise he has barely spoken a word of English for 15 minutes.

Laugh? Well, you had to be there, really - a cliche more true of Eddie Izzard than any other comic. He moves too fast for print to do him justice. One moment he's discussing Beverly Hills 90210 ('a place where people between the ages of 25 and 35 still have to go to school'), the next - simply by adding 'And . . . and Jehovah's witnesses as well . . .' - he's explaining his method of foxing doorsteppers. This technique (a kind of live extension of Monty Python's 'And now for something completely different - ') gives him the freedom to jump-cut from one unrelated topic to another. His delivery oohs and errs on the side of Frankie Howerd, and like that master rambler, his repertoire of hesitations and repetitions ('Yes, you think, ooh, you think, ahh, ahem, that's right, you know, or something') smooths the passage of his deviations and become as funny as anything he gets around to saying.

It helps that he has a funny physical presence. When he hunches his shoulders, looks up into the lights, then slowly lowers the heavy lids of his eyes to peek camply out at the audience, he fleetingly calls to mind Benny Hill. The apparent aimlessness of his conversation is belied by the energy he puts into it: bending at the knees, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels while spreading his arms out wide he looks like a surfer trying desperately to keep his balance.

At times, given his habit of saying the first thing that comes in to his head, he gives the impression that he is not so much riding the waves as been pulled under by them. Comedians who take risks are usually thought of as those who will leave no expletive deleted, no taboo unexplored, or will take all their clothes off and launch a firework from their bottom. At best, they are prepared to add new material to tried and tested routines, or to slip in a topical reference here, an ad lib there. In Izzard's case, risk means making some of it up as he goes along, each time he steps on to a stage.

It doesn't always work. This set was marred by a long and tedious tale of Swedish nautical history, and at times the show comes dangerously close to being less a show than work-in-progress. But the rough and readiness of his performance also has the effect of letting the audience in on the act: because Izzard is prepared to pick up an idea and run with it, you forgive him on the odd occasion when he ends up flat on his face. 'Just a thought,' he'll say, picking himself up from another fall. And you applaud him because it's not just a line.

Continues until 11 July at the Shaw Theatre, 100 Euston Rd, London NW1 (071-388 1394).