Venue: Grand Opera House York
The performance was billed as one in which Merton would finally prove “he’s got legs”, away from the comforts of Have I Got News For You. But he scarcely even attempted to do so, instead relying on a cacophony of crumbling comic crutches, coming in the form of Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster.
His ‘stand-up’ was progressive only in its multifaceted form. This included rambling gags from the sole Merton, linking into surreal sketches and mind-numbing musical numbers. One sketch, in which Merton and his two male supports attempted to act out a porn scene, made you wonder which Soho back-alley you had stumbled into.
When Merton did get stage-time, his longer tales of his time in the Maudsley mental hospital in Camberwell were funny, and bought a necessary, helpful tinge of truth to the performance. His flow, however, was unhelpfully staccatoed by his use of one-liners which were a mixed bag of gags; ranging from the poor ‘I learnt French the hard way, from a Spaniard’ to the very infrequent excellent political flourishes: talk of posh catering invented by The Borrowers and Merton’s incredulity at being told, whilst working for a tabloid, that his article was un-publishable as it was untrue.
The essential problem with having Merton accompanied by three comrades was that it lacked danger. The performance was devoid of spontaneity in the sense that we, the audience, were horribly aware of exactly how contrived the show was. A comic by themselves provides a certain dark atmosphere at times, a lone man swaying on the precipice of a cliff. With his crutches this raw energy dissipated, leaving Merton without the combating feel of an imminent tragic mistake, which normally highlights comedy. The classic and essential combination of comedy and tragedy was absent.
At one point in the evening, after the thankful conclusion of a tired attempt to impersonate Prince Charles, Merton waltzed back on stage to applause and delivered the type of witticism this misguided reviewer thought the evening would be filled with: “What? I only brought on a chair.” It may appear innocuous but it was the kind of seemingly unscripted quip that his gallivanting performances on News For You and Radio 4’s Just A Minute are littered with. On a night where each sketch involving Merton and his crutches gave you the sense of dread one feels when awaiting an impending banality, such moments become noteworthy. But this night was bereft of them. The sporadic political flourishes aside, more well-stomped ground (like sex) was frustratingly dominant.
Overall, Merton’s own voice was not found. Any good stand-up begins with their own character, progressing the act by honing to a knife-point the funnies and sifting out the rest. Although Merton’s crutches were probably brilliant performers in their own right, they only served to cloud Merton’s essential sense of self by stifling his air, stage-time and general presence. Ultimately, Merton lacked what Billy Connolly described as “waves” of laughter, leaving little tempo in the act. The essential comic question raised by comedians and viewers alike is simple: as Fielding put it, ‘Can you do it yourself?’ The desired response, an eruption of ‘No!’ echoing around our brain-boxes, was absent.