Liam Williams is facing a dilemma. He likes stand-up, partly because it’s a form of social interaction where people can’t easily sidle away from him, but mostly because it makes him money. If he didn’t have stand-up then he’d have to get a normal job, and be just like everyone else: ‘shuffling zombielike into a material abyss’.
So here he is, at Edinburgh, performing with his sketch troupe Sheeps, but also following up last year’s well-received solo debut with this lunchtime hour of understated, self-referential chat. And it is chat: he talks to his audience like they’re the flatmates he’s spent all weekend getting stoned with. He practises his clichéd, undergraduate theories on world politics. He reads entries out of his diary and, at one point, plunges into a very long, very dry recap of the plot of the film ‘Fight Club’. Crucially, he’s just about affable and witty enough to make all this bumbling self-indulgence funny.
So what’s the dilemma? What explains that miserablist grimace that he wears so constantly? Everything’s going well for the Cambridge Footlights alumnus so far. In the first half of his show he chalks up easy laughs against such crowd-pleasing topics as Angry Birds, the Guardian quick crossword and (what might prove to be a fertile new area for middle-class millennial comedy) the intricacies of his Spotify Premium account. He’s proving his ‘rising star’ credentials, and elevating his comedy-night-at-the-student union shtick above the mundane.
The problem is that he’s a bit of a phoney. Or ‘pseud’, as he labels himself. He’s not read the books he references. Despite ‘Capitalism’ being the title of his show, he doesn’t really understand the concept (‘it’s like a triangle, and the money goes up the sides’). He can’t even finish the Guardian quick crossword. Each night on stage is a painful reminder of the instability of his own personality.
Really, you sense, young Liam from Leeds would just like to go to Wetherspoon’s and drink himself numb rather than hold up a mirror to his psyche through performance. But, then, where would his beer money come from? So he has to try to keep himself calm on stage, employing everything from meditation to the Pharrell Williams song ‘Happy’ in his attempts to stay tuned in to the universe’s good vibes. And yet, the system which he doesn’t fully understand has got hold of him, and it won’t let go. No matter how much his mind writhes and squirms, he’s caught in the hollow vortex of modernity, with its new-age fads, ubiquitous pop songs and Spotify Premium accounts – his act just another addition to all the meaningless dross, he feels.
Williams is like most shallow, left-wing blokes in their mid-twenties. He’s scruffy, introspective, shy and sexually obsessed. The brilliance of this show is how he controls his sense of self, presenting his everyman qualities to maximum comic effect. He isn’t just a loser. He’s the loser. The antithesis of Russell Brand – the eloquent revolutionary outplaying the establishment at their own rhetorical games – Williams is the weirdo disappearing down a hole of his own devising, and showing the audience how deep and depressive that place can look. It’s a brave move, which marks him out as a clever and unique performer. It’s also a true and harrowing vision of where we’re at: a sad young man, trapped in a system, talking nonsense for money.
‘Liam Williams: Capitalism’ is at Laughing Horse @ The Cellar Monkey, 1.15pm