At Last! The 1981 Show, Royal Festival Hall, London

Julian Hall
Thursday 02 June 2011 00:00
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The intention of this live slice of comedy history was to commemorate some of those who shaped a new comedy scene in Britain, but it served mainly as a reminder that “alternative comedy” was often not as funny as it thought it was.

In character as the luvvie Nicholas Craig, Nigel Planer of The Young Ones kicked things off by sneering down his nose at alternative comedy as “pointless and adolescent”. First up to dispel this idea was Arthur Smith. While often good value – “A bag for life? I don’t want that kind of responsibility” – Smith’s indulgent performance of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” numbered among the occasions when a largely game audience felt nonplussed.

Another such moment came with The Oblivion Boys (Stephen Frost and Mark Arden), whose knockabout charm remains as slight as it ever was. “That’s fighting talk where I come from,” says Frost in one sequence, to which Arden replies: “Why don’t you hit me then?” “I’ve moved,” flourishes Frost.

Similarly Norman Lovett’s style felt unique in the Eighties, but the passage of time has obscured the seemingly inconsequential nature of material that included weak, prop-assisted gags where a kazoo replaces a referee’s whistle and a shower cap is likened to a jellyfish.

Alexei Sayle hosted the second act, but fought shy of reprising his old routines, choosing instead to muse upon how much had changed since he “invented alternative comedy”, adding: “as comedians we were soldiers in the same war; obviously Jim Davidson was in the Waffen-SS.”

Sayle’s charges included writer and actress Pauline Melville, updating her role as Eydie the Radical Housewife, and Arnold Brown, who gave his absurd one-liners a rather too sedate outing.

Stewart Lee hosted the final section in which he inflicted upon us the tedious musings of Kevin McAleer, using a series of unconnected slides to tell the story of his life. Celebrated punk poet John Cooper Clarke floundered in his effort to pick up the pace, while livelier offerings came from The Greatest Show on Legs, avant-garde Japanese outfit Frank Chickens and Chris Lynam, who ended the show with his trademark firework-up-the-bum gag.

Overall, the feeling prevailed that comedy is no country for old men (or women) – even if some of these acts helped to lay the terrain for today.

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