Stephen Merchant, Amused Moose, London

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The Independent Culture

While it seemed as though most of the nation was packed in to pubs to witness England's unsuccessful attempt to retain the Webb Ellis Cup last Saturday, a full house in the Amused Moose in Soho watched while one of Britain's comedy aristocracy, Stephen Merchant, held aloft his already secured Bafta.

His creative partner, Ricky Gervais, was something of a Johnny-come-lately to stand-up, and Merchant, too, was flexing performance muscles seldom used. Apparently, Merchant was using this short set to keep fresh, should his services ever be required for big charity gigs by Gervais.

That Merchant brought along his Bafta echoed the cheek of Gervais, who was last seen on stage wearing a crown as the self-proclaimed king of comedy and beside a statue of his Golden Globe. Unlike Gervais, however, Merchant does not have a stage swagger and seems to enjoy the live experience less.

A kind of frenetic West Country Emo Philips, Merchant kicked off his set by admitting that he went into comedy for the ladies, his geek-chic looks having prevented him from any action. Lanky, learned and bespectacled, Merchant tells us that in his youth he was more likely to visit a shire horse museum than a nightclub. All the same, he used to ask those hipsters: "While you might know where the clitoris is, do you know where the fetlock is?"

Now, of course, Merchant stands tall with a microphone and some distance between those days, and is able to payback with a practised put-down like: "The only way you'd be on the news is if you cut her up into little bits", delivered to a man who was sitting at the back with his girlfriend.

Even with fame on his side, Merchant distances himself as far as possible from the image of a suave sophisticate (at one point, he mimics himself making love without his glasses, which only works "if your fantasy is a Victorian child-catcher"), yet he dares to suggest he's cooler than Roger Moore's James Bond who, he says, had he worked in an office would have been the equivalent of a wacky funster no one likes – double-0 David Brent, perhaps?

Playing up to his alleged weaknesses and toying with his fame, Merchant's toe in the water of stand-up showed what a great leveller the art form is. The set was too short to know how much more of himself he could have included and to what reward, but it was a fascinating opportunity to see how a comedy brain that is best known for on-screen contributions could think on its feet on stage.

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