‘I don’t want to tell you how to do your jobs,’ says Stewart Lee, addressing the reviewers in tonight’s press night audience. ‘But whatever you think of this, you should probably take a star off.’
This isn’t a finished show, explains the influential comic, with a flowing narrative and neat conclusion. ‘Much-a-Stew About Nothing’ is a work in progress, featuring six routines (three each night, on rotation) which will eventually become episodes of the next series of Lee’s ‘Comedy Vehicle’. And he’s deliberately chosen the three strongest sets on press night. But even when workshopping fresh routines (which, in fact, he’s been road-testing for six months), the iconoclastic comedian is on spectacularly funny form.
Tonight, Lee’s three half-hours focus (broadly) on politics, immigration and being an ‘impotent, vasectomised, 45-year-old, functioning alcoholic father of two’. Each 30-minute section has a distinctively different style and feel and, of course, Lee displays his trademark techniques – confident cynicism, patience-stretching repetition, deconstructing his own material and the audiences’ reactions – to immaculate effect.
But Lee’s aware that his loyal fanbase are smart and familiar with his tactics, so deliberately puts out red herrings, or swerves off in unexpected directions and, at one point, mockingly berates the crowd’s lack of creativity. He often comments on what joke’s coming up next, expertly demolishing the insincerity of stand-up appearing as off-the-cuff, while adding an extra sense of anticipation when the gag finally arrives.
Lee claims that, unlike other long-running shows, ‘Much-a-Stew About Nothing’ will actually get worse throughout the run, as he puts the stronger routines to bed to allow for extra work on the weaker sets. Indeed, the middle set in tonight’s show is weaker than the other two, and not many stand-ups could get away with charging £20 a head for the privilege of witnessing unfinished material in a 400-seat theatre.
Perhaps later in the run Lee could be right, and this review needs a star knocking off. For now, though, he’s certainly worthy of our four, as even in work-in-progress mode, Stewart Lee’s still better than most comedians could ever manage.