Comedy review: Robert Newman's New Theory of Evolution, Little Angel Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

"Reviewers of alternative comedy have failed to do what the rock-music press did 30 years ago: evolve a critical language to talk about a new art form." So claimed Robert Newman in 2006.

This may be contentious, but what cannot be disputed is that a Robert Newman show demands more engagement with its subject matter than most comedy shows do.

In the last decade the man who was once the poster boy for 'comedy as rock and roll', along with David Baddiel, has re-calibrated his shtick from a pretend history professor to something genuinely academic and overtly geo-political. Robert Newman's New Theory of Evolution has a political point to make too: that group-oriented evolution, and therefore co-operation, are the drivers for evolution, not genetic determinism, and therefore capitalism.

In this unlikely comedy experiment Newman sometimes has to go round the houses to get the laughs. "The French Resistance had less members than Dexy's Midnight Runners" he observes, somehow arriving at this via a dissection of the gene selection performed by slime mold.

Elsewhere some old material surfaces, for example Newman's impression of Richard Burton finding out that he has been dumped by the BBC - the result of disparaging comments he made about Winston Churchill after playing him in a biopic. This comes as part of a long preamble to Newman's assessment of the post-war period as initially fertile for more egalitarian regimes and unfettered by the popularisation of gene-centred science. 

Newman uses Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene as a byword for Social Darwinism, somewhat loading the bases. Meanwhile, Dawkins himself provides Newman an opportunity to keep his material directly related to the theme. In one of the pot shots taken by Newman against Dawkins, the comedian has the evolutionary biologist doubting the absolute of the identity of his postman until eventually both men are naked and wrestling, stripped of any pretence.

Like most of the 48-year-old's shows, this romp is extremely ambitious. Arguably 20 of the 90 minutes could be cut, especially from the introduction of the group-led examples of evolution at the start. The gags in-between can seem gratuitous, bringing the audience out of the narrative rather than highlighting it with humour. Meanwhile, the conflict between the evolutionary theories and their political implications should be brought out much earlier.

With the show going out on tour later this year, cuts maybe unlikely, though Newman's previous shows have previously evolved into finished articles that were much stronger and fitter then when hey started.