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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence