Venue: The Assembly Rooms
Stewart Lee does not hide the fact that he is using his run of shows at the Fringe in order to test and refine material for his BBC 2 programme, Comedy Vehicle. The fact that he is testing half hour sections does not, however, impede the brilliance of his performance, or his ability to structure his act and weave comedy across content. Rather, by the end of his set this arrangement (which had seemed more than a little underwhelming for a £12.50 ticket) had dissolved entirely into a series of much long-form rants on his audience’s ability to correctly receive the content.
Lee’s performance was constantly interwoven with a kind of meta-narration about his own act, its quality, and his audience’s ability to grasp it. He spends most of the performance pretending that a portion of his audience have been dragged along begrudgingly by a friend, and can’t understand why he hasn’t made a joke yet.
In between the flow of the set Lee makes some brilliant insights, both political and pedestrian in nature, along with more than a few on the current state of British stand-up. From Lee Mack’s description of him as a ‘cultural bully’, to Government cuts to arts funding, to the realisation that having kids means the majority of his set is literally about what he can see from his window, Lee meets every topic with his signature combination of brilliant satire and playful smugness.
It is easy to see, however, why he is such an acquired taste. Very few of his reviewers seem to receive Lee with anything other than outright disdain or absolute praise; one reviewer from the telegraph even opted to walk out of the show half-way through and leave a zero star review. If the irony of Lee’s complaints towards his audience are missed, and taken as genuine disdain then it would be a grating hour of perceived condescension. But this is not the case, and in the context of what is a very purposeful conception of stand-up comedy, Lee’s stage persona brilliantly parodies what could be a weakness in his set: his insistence on intellectualism and seeing comedy as art. By exaggerating this and bringing it to the fore of his work, Lee exposes its contradictions and opens them up for mockery.
Even in its partially complete form Stewart Lee’s performance was brilliantly constructed and sets the bench mark very high for stand-up comedy, and despite his best attempts to convince the audience that they should not like him, he had them enthralled for its full duration. He gets close to admitting this at the end of his show, when describing performing since acquiring a hearing aid: ‘I’ve spent twenty-six years building up a distant and bitter stage personality. Unfortunately it seems the shows have been going quite well’.