It sounds, as Eddie Izzard concedes, like the most insanely extreme out-of-town try-out in the history of theatre. In the three years prior to his bringing this reloaded version of his show Force Majeure into the West End, the comedian has performed the material in 28 countries (from South Africa to Estonia) and in four languages (English, French, German, and Spanish). Izzard's buoyant mission to break down cultural barriers by stressing what is universal in humour is admirable, even if you wouldn't recommend his global way of going about it to all comics. The thought of Victoria Wood, say, with her particular tone of voice and clutch of cultural references, struggling to find a Serbian equivalent for Hobnobs and hostess trolleys is not an encouraging one. And in interview, Izzard can be a tad portentous about his multingual zeal. The day can't be far off when he establishes himself as the first transgender comedian with open ambitions to be Mayor of London to send a polyglot quip back to the planet while walking in space for charity.
So it's very good to report that Izzard is in enchantingly frisky and confiding mood here, once this self-professed “action transvestite” has tossed aside the brolly and the bowler hat of his ironic John-Steed-from-The-Avengers get-up with a practised, red-nailed hand. If the intent is ever faintly preachy, this is fluffily camouflaged by the playful chattiness and digressive lateral lunges of his benign, free-associative technique.
The overarching topic here is humanistic debunking of the worship of Gods and deities. It was when ancient man responded to bad harvests and natural disasters with the thought “Perhaps if I sacrifice Steve...” that fascism made its debut, Izzard contends. The hapless comic predicament of linguistic difference is a secondary theme. Rambling alternative history lessons pull you up sharp before the fact, say, that for 339 years (between 1066 and 1399) the language of the ruling class in England was French. Izzard pictures two pissed-off Saxon waiters taking an order and stroppily making the momentous decision to scrap giving nouns a gender (masculine, feminine, neuter or “just a fucking spoon”?), a move that liberated English on its way to world pre-eminence.
Is there another comedian who could come up with the fancy that there must have been the odd mole that, in the course of a normal day's digging, struck gold and then have these blind, scrabbling creatures chorusing “High three!” at their luck? Dressage may not be an original target, but Izzard's genius is to suggest that the pointless “non-mammalian” sport would be perked up if it were with house-burglary. The routine where he primly prances about, backing into a wardrobe in the hope of extra points for seeing Narnia is the show's most blissfully funny sequence. He's refreshingly open throughout about what worked and what didn't in foreign countries. The German translation is now the version he uses everywhere for his sketch about Luther. It shows him being embarrassed by a high wind when posting his 95 Theses to the door of the Church in Wittenburg. A watershed moment in the Reformation becomes a wacky stationery problem. Warmly recommended, in any language.