This is, says Stewart Lee, a show of two halves. The first will be about Islamophobia; the second “exclusively about urine.” And to his dubious credit, the comedian keeps to his word. A Room with a Stew is another of Lee’s sort-of gigs – he is preparing for a new tour and a fourth series of his Comedy Vehicle, and is workshopping various half hours of material before the show proper and BBC recording next year.
It is billed as “work-in-progress”, but however much the comedian shows his workings tonight – prefacing routines with explanations that they don’t really “fit the narrative”, and analysing audience reactions throughout (“I try jokes out and if the audience gets them, I cut them,” he says, possibly only two-thirds joking), this is a typically meticulous affair.
As usual, his routines are exhaustively thought through, neatly tied up and delivered with the consummate, swaggering ease of a stand-up who knows that it is near impossible for him to do wrong. The meaner he is to his fans, the louder they laugh. “You can’t understand anything, can you?” he growls. The audience guffaws with delight.
The first half is a riot, and packed with laughs. In a response to Nigel Farage’s recent comments that the stand-up comedy scene is staffed by lazy lefties peddling liberal bias, and to “get the Daily Mail off his back”, Lee has opted for a different tack – namely, observational Islamophobic comedy. “Have you seen these Muslims they have now?” and so on.
There’s a typically long-winded story about a woman in a burka on a bus that essentially goes nowhere but takes lovely little diversions into topics such as being stalked on Twitter, clichés of speech and Roy Chubby Brown. As for the Islamophobia, it reaches a punchline in the end, one that leaves you laughing and a little punchdrunk, so rigorously is it argued.
The urine half is lower key. It starts out as classic Lee – a surreal youthful tale, a daft figure of speech and some bludgeoning repetition. Then, just as one might think that he has taken his foot off the pedal a bit, let the energy drop a little too low, he turns the whole routine back on the audience and ends up talking about Robin Williams’ suicide. Never dare to think you know where you are with Lee.
There is an intriguing aside, too, about his deafness. Lee has just started wearing a hearing aid and for the first time in years he can hear the crowd’s laughter. It makes it that bit harder for him to maintain his cold, aloof character, he says, and certainly he looks to be having fun tonight, as he playfully challenges the crowd to keep up. He is, I think, the only comedian who can get away with deconstructing and critiquing his own routines as he goes along and not be repellent. He, and his material, are simply that good. And if there’s a lingering sense that the joke is always a little on us, somehow that feels like a good thing.
Tonight; 8 to 10 December; 5 to 31 January, then touring (www.stewartlee.co.uk)
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