Having tried his hand at stand-up in his Bristol hometown during the late 1990s, Stephen Merchant has been slow in launching his own solo vehicle. But it has been worth the wait.
Hello Ladies purports to chart the 36-year-old's failures with the opposite sex, despite his being the multimillionaire co-creator of two of the biggest comedies of the century, The Office and Extras. As unlikely as this premise is, it works well enough to string together some clever writing and unexpected physicality. Merchant alternates easily between self-deprecation – "not a lot of repeat business back at Chez Steve" – and mock arrogance – "anyone here ever been to the Golden Globes?".
No doubt the tour, which stretches until the beginning of December, will draw the crowds purely on the basis of Merchant's bulging awards shelf. So it's reassuring that the laughs – and there are many – come not from recognition of that bloke off the telly but from an exposition of a formidable performing talent that has been kept under wraps till now.
Merchant has emerged from behind his agent's desk in Extras to bound on to the stage with a confidence and enthusiasm which instantly puts the audience at ease. "It looks easy on the telly doesn't it?", he says as he launches into an opening riff about why he is having another crack at stand-up. Oh, and it means he doesn't have to share half the money with "you know who". By which he means Ricky Gervais, who he also refers to as "his nibs".
He might not mention his comedy partner by name, but Merchant's pronunciation of "mental" is classic Gervais. This show also confirms that pale geek Gareth in The Office is essentially Merchant chopped off at the knees.
At 6ft 7in, Merchant's height provides some of his best material. Following the advice of a doctor who told him to bend at the knees instead of stooping, his demonstration of a bizarre way of entering low doorways is pure Lee Evans. As a teenager trying to disguise his height he spent time "in the distance", he says, running downstage.
This expert physicality also rescues some well-trodden riffs which might otherwise have struggled – textspeak, noisy cinema food, VHS recorders, dogs. Successfully making the journey from splitting the bill on dates to the Last Supper exposed a slickness and skill which belie his gangly, erratic exterior.
And far from lazily using the audience as a vehicle to get to his next set piece, he took a front-row couple's post-coital engagement before the proposer left for a year in Cyprus – and really went to town with it, embarking on an elaborate and very funny imagining of what may have occurred in the Mediterranean.
At more than an hour, plus a support act, punters probably get their money's worth, though there is an all-too-familiar sag at the 40-minute mark. This is not helped by an excessively graphic re-enactment of events in the bachelor Merchant bedroom. "I thought it was going to be classier than this too," he said. Yet the bulk of the set shows him capable of real class. A re-staging of a play from his schooldays was beautifully executed, right down to the noisy moving of chairs during scene changes.
A giant screen seems underused until the almost-finale, which shows that up close, Merchant is just as peculiar and funny. In one cute observation he notes how some people are so dull that when they turn away you forget what they look like. No danger of that with Merchant, who is taking this stand-up lark in his very long stride.
Touring until 1 December (www.stephen merchant.com)Reuse content