There's something about Lee Evans

Lee Evans has made a film with Cameron Diaz. But he won't watch it.

Lee Evans's manager is trying to persuade him to join us at the local multiplex in downtown Montreal for an afternoon screening of There's Something About Mary, a new Hollywood comedy starring Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon and, er, Lee Evans. "It's embarrassing," mumbles the comedian and actor, before promising to meet us there. We wait for him in the foyer - in vain. Later he mutters something about not being able to find the cinema. Yeah, right.

That winning, very British sense of embarrassment is Evans all over. Whether spectactularly failing to get the girl in There's Something About Mary or accidently-on-purpose walking into the mic-stand on stage, his whole persona is based on nervy, yet charming incompetence. He might as well have "LOSER" branded on his forehead. He has turned the (deliberate) cock-up into an artform. His schtick is that he'd rather be anywhere than up there performing in front of thousands of punters. In conversation he refers to himself as "an idiot."

And that's why people warm to him. They can identify with his portrayal of a person constantly at two with the world - the man who disastrously misuses a French "hole in the ground" lavatory or who is baffled by hotels: "I opened the wardrobe and there was a pillow and a blanket. That was the worst night's sleep I've ever had." He closed his recent show at the Montreal Comedy Festival with a song about how he messed up a suicide attempt: "I tried cutting my wrists. I tried, but I missed." Failure has made Evans a roaring success.

He now has the pulling-power - matched in comedy by perhaps only Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly - to fill a London West End theatre for 10 weeks. That is to say nothing of a burgeoning movie career which includes the acclaimed tale of fading end-of-the-pier performers, Funny Bones, the zany box-office hit comedy, Mouse Hunt, and the culty futuristic Luc Besson picture, The Fifth Element.

In There's Something About Mary, Evans tones down his clowning to deliver an impressive performance as a tweedy English academic who is trying to woo the delectable Diaz. Made by the wonderfully daft Farrelly Brothers (responsible for Dumb and Dumber and King Pin), this is a film that taste forgot. I won't tell you what happens when one of the characters zips up his flies too quickly - you might be eating. But if you're prepared to check in your PC sensibilities at the cloakroom, you'll find Mary a belly-laughs, no-brainer romp. It's also a showcase for Evans's growing talents as a character actor.

He went down a storm in Montreal, too. He puts so much into every show you almost fear for his health. You look on in awe as he hurls himself into acting out everything from a drunk trying to urinate to the last item of luggage left on the carousel: "Don't leave me here, I don't know anybody." Towelling himself down on stage, he remarked at one point: "If I went to the toilet now, I'd pass steam."

At the curtain-call, the whole front row insisted on shaking his hand: "What I'd like to do now is shag you all," he exulted. But as soon as the show was over, he dashed for the haven of his dressing-room and just sat there quietly with his shirt off, cascading sweat and puffing out his cheeks.

The next day was less frantic. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and blue jeans, Evans unwound by improvising some show-tunes on the grand piano in the corner of a conference-room at the hotel. A bit later, putting his feet up on the sofa, he shook his head and said: "I'm just not built for schmoozing. In England, we're brought up to think 'don't get too big for your boots'. We prize modesty. I'd never fly into Heathrow and say, 'Out of my way, don't you know who I am?' They'd fill you in on the spot in Immigration. They wouldn't stamp your passport, they'd stamp your chin."

Evans, now in his mid thirties, has always been spurred by a desire to prove himself. In the late 1970s, after school in Southend (where he still lives with his wife and young daughter), he followed his musician father onto the working men's club circuit. He admits that his innovative comedy was not always a hit with audiences expecting mother-in-law gags. "That's when I started doing physical comedy, because then you're like a moving target."

On one notorious occasion he didn't move fast enough. "I was beaten up in Cardiff. These six guys tried to steal me car after the show because I was so bad. But the steering lock was on so it just went round in circles."

For a while in the mid 1980s, Evans was a comedian in search of an audience. "I was wearing a glittery suit and performing on a circuit where everyone was doing traditional stuff: 'The wife's fat' - the wife was always fat. I remember doing the West Ham Working Men's Club one night and I died on me arse. Someone said to me afterwards, 'What you're doing isn't going to work here, but there is a place where it will - the Comedy Store.' At last I'd found somewhere you were allowed to say what you liked, rather than all that racist, sexist crap they wanted in working men's clubs." An appearance on Friday Night Live soon followed, and Evans never had to worry about lairy punters in car parks again.

For all that, he still manifests what psychologists would no doubt label Classic Neurotic Comedian's Syndrome: he's a man who can't quite believe his own popularity. "I'm motivated by fear of failure. It's a personal mission to say to all those people from years ago, 'Look, I'm seriously not a failure.'

"Stand-up is therapy. I'm sure every comedian has something wrong with them. The Montreal Comedy Festival is just a massive therapy session. Every day you get bouts of depression and think it's not working. If it's going well, you go, 'Yeah? Why?' You're never pleased. That's why you're a comedian."

It would be wrong to get the impression from all this that Evans is a morose, depressive, Hancock-esque figure. Hitting you with a devastating right-left combination of patter and gags, this former boxer makes for invigorating company. He's just driven - as all the best performers are - by a nagging sense of insecurity and a restless urge to improve.

He isn't, for instance, relishing the prospect of a West End run: "It fills your pants, but you've got to keep challenging yourself." That's one reason why he is keen to develop his acting; he's reading up to a dozen scripts a month.

"It's best to have a few strings to your bow. That's what Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Rik Mayall have all done. I wouldn't want to be one of those 50-year-old guys still going 'Wa-hey' and dancing on pianos in a crappy suit and a shirt with big collars - 'Well, he was all right till he fell down and couldn't get back up again.' It's not a very good gig when the audience have to rush on stage to help you up." That gig is some way off, you feel.

Edinburgh Playhouse (0131 557 2590), 4 & 5 Sept; Apollo, W1 (0171 494 5586), 14 Sept-21 Nov. There's Something About Mary is released on 25 Sept.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum