Peter Hall's revival of Julian Barry's 1971 play Lenny casts Eddie Izzard, the maestro of the improvisatory riff, as Lenny Bruce, the American stand-up who, with his ground-breaking routines about such taboo topics as VD and the difficulties of guilt-free masturbation, is venerated as the godfather of alternative comedy.
"Why do bees make honey? Earwigs don't make chutney" is the sort of left- field philosophical musing to which Izzard is given. The questions Bruce asked were considerably more uncomfortable. As is demonstrated here, the query, "Are there any niggers in the audience?", followed by an appeal for the house lights to go up and a spirited singling out of "niggers", "yids" and "greaseballs", still has the capacity to induce unease, regardless of the fact that the sequence turns into a rather preachy spiel.
Bruce's brand of gleeful scabrousness and teasing, lewd seduction aren't naturally part of Izzard's stage persona. An endearing Lenny Bruce - such as he can't help but give us - seems a bit of a contradiction in terms: like a serene Woody Allen or a magnanimous Bernard Manning. Of course, Izzard works the house with enormous skill and performs some of Bruce's wackier flights of fancy with an infectious sense of elation and a real intuitive relish for Bruce's characteristic trick of seeing all of American life (church, politics and the law) as a corrupt extension of showbiz.
The darker, driven aspects of the comedian aren't as convincingly drawn. Izzard's niceness has a sanitising effect on the more confrontational material. I have problems, too, with the play. Cutting back and forth between Bruce's developing nightclub act and epi-sodes from his life (including his marriage to a stripper, his trial on obscenity charges and his overdose in 1966), Barry's piece runs into the difficulties often found in plays about the political nature of humour.
Kenneth Tynan concluded a brilliant essay on Bruce by quarrelling with the portentous idea that the comedian was "the man on America's conscience". It would be more in keeping with his spirit, Tynan quipped, to call him "the man who went down on America's conscience". Lenny fails to keep faith with that spirit.