Stewart Lee, Smirnoff Underbelly, Edinburgh
Friday 13 August 2004
Is this the return of the prodigal son? No. Stewart "Jerry Springer: The Opera" Lee has been away from stand-up for just three years, but it seems longer. In that time, there was that opera and a journalism career to keep him busy. Earlier this year, Lee could be found warming up on the London club circuit with material that was far older than three years, so it was, for the most part, a relief to see him with some new thoughts in this Edinburgh show.
New thoughts, but same style, though surly, arrogant, laboured. You either love or hate his on-stage persona. Lee is burly, with a Graham Norton hairstyle (a description he would hate, as he describes Norton's career as a "pink jackboot stamping on a human face for all eternity") and features little changed in 15 years in the business.
He starts well, with a moody tale of watching the events of September 11 (or, rather, 9 November, as he reclaims the calendar from American imperialism) unfold in a bar in Spain. His hushed delivery has the suggestion of "what I am about to do is magic", and, sometimes, it is: a brilliant deconstruction of Angus Deayton's on-screen talents, a dig at the Perrier awards, and musings on the perils of being a maths teacher in Auschwitz.
Patience is a virtue when watching Lee. In days of old he went down comedy cul-de-sacs in such routines as his tale of Robert the Bruce. This this time it is Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. He is very self-aware about these cul-de-sacs, and can turn moments that do not work into episodes of analysis which sometimes manage to rescue a laugh.
Lee once said that he came close to quitting the comedy circuit because he was so bored with stand-up that he would deliberately throw his act so he had to work harder to get it back. These processes are still at work and require a sympathetic audience. But fans of Lee are all too ready to indulge him, while the rest of us have to fall into either the hate or the love-hate camp.
You have to respect a man who can make a story about pronouncing the name of film director Ang Lee in a stereotypical manner last as long as he does. He deserves credit, too, for being aware enough of his own ego to use it in a joke about unsuccessfully intervening in a stand-off between Muslims and the BNP outside Finsbury Park mosque.
A work in progress like this will always be hit and miss, but will be even more so with Lee as he is the one pushing it off course. If you want to see whether a craftsman will come up with the goods, this is the show for you.
To 29 August (0870 745 3083)
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