Already fêted in the US earlier this year, both for his Broadway appearance (in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg) and for Sexie, for which audiences have included Robin Williams, Madonna and Jim Carrey, Eddie Izzard, returning to stand-up in Britain after four years, has broken box-office records.
It is a triumph for Izzard that people have packed into venues holding 10,000 or more to hear inconsequential discourse delivered in the vaguest way possible. His trademark vagueness has allowed Izzard to become the perfect stadium stand-up: he does not have to befriend the audience or engage it in small talk to make it feel at home, yet here is a man that you could happily listen to all night, someone who can turn a gathering in an aircraft hangar into an intimate soirée.
Though unashamedly and justifiably promoted as the most rock'n'roll comedy tour to date, Sexie begins its life as a cinema trailer, with big screens displaying swirling graphics and a soundtrack of fanfares and crescendos. Izzard appeared in a snazzy coat-and-corset combo that would make a big-top MC proud, male or female. He is the antithesis of the "we proudly present" school of show business andhalf-apologetically parades a collection of imaginary animals and freaks while clowning around, playing provocatively with his new 38D false breasts or swatting flies with an imaginary newspaper.
That he can get away with a long foray into Greek mythology shows how much audiences are prepared to indulge Izzard, trusting that he can reel them in with a topic that rarely enjoys comic dissection. Indulgence requires patience, and, as Izzard's material often works in layers of ideas piled on top of one another rather than presented as faits accomplis, that patience is useful. But there is a price to pay. Some of his surreal non sequiturs veer and sway before a leitmotif such as breasts, flies or horses comes to the rescue; improvisations can go on too long; and, as if to test the theory that he can do no wrong, his encore is a Christopher Walken impersonation.
Because of the size of the venue, Izzard has to have the laughter played back to him via monitors, a process that sometimes takes more than a second. How that changes his perception of the audience reaction to Sexie is difficult to estimate, but it must inevitably do that.
What I heard and felt of Sexie was the contented giggling of foreplay peppered with raunchy, climactic belly-laughs. Even though the ripples of laughter amounted to a gentle caress rather than an amorous fondle, people were wearing smiles from the beginning to the end. It is safe to say that Eddie was reigning in Manchester.
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