Comedy Review: Stewart Lee

Words: Ian Kingsbury
Friday 15 March 2024
reading time: min, words

Basic Lee sees famed comedian Stewart Lee go back to basics with one man, one microphone, and one audience. 

Stewart Lee BASIC LEE Photo By Steve Ullathorne 2560X1142

Stewart Lee once said on stage “nobody is competent to review me.” Out of respect for the man, the following is intended to prove him right.

Reviewing a Stewart Lee show is a bit like reviewing water for a fish and the Wicked Witch of the West. One can’t get enough of the stuff, whilst the other doesn’t want anything to do with it. So you wonder if there’s any point. But you’re obliged to, so here goes.

If you’re not aware of his work, Lee’s stock-in-trade is a challenging, divisive brand of curmudgeonly and confrontational stand up. For some more of an endurance than a joy. A through-line of all his shows is to play off the ‘good‘ audiences (who are cultured and who ‘get’ it) against the bovine, mass culture-munching ‘plus ones’ who don’t, and who would rather be watching Kevin Bridges, Ricky Gervais or Michael McIntyre.

Because Stewart is different, special, better. Or so the character of Stewart Lee takes great pains to explain to us. He writes all his own material, not like Frankie Boyle who employs an “army of unnamed writers”. Of his own material the character played by Stewart Lee says “you wouldn’t write this. You wouldn’t bother”. I rather enjoyed that.

As an audience we come under the cosh of his grandiose disapproval

Tonight he described his shtick as a grim trip to the site of a massacre whilst on an otherwise lovely holiday. His shows being the equivalent of being dragged out of a lovely warm sea whilst sipping a mojito, to be edified but deeply saddened by a miserable historical visit. “I’m the comedy of that” he grins. But like so much of his meta, self-aggrandising and self-effacing stage persona, he is and he isn’t.

His latest show, Basic Lee, strips things back to the essence of the art form: one person, one mic and one audience. And yet it doesn’t feel much different to his previous shows. As an audience we come under the cosh of his grandiose disapproval, as we fail to measure up to the fictional audience of “last night”. He claimed to curtail routines because we hadn’t reacted with sufficiently frothing adoration. As with so much of what he does, including claiming to spot someone using a mobile phone, one can never be quite sure if it’s real or part of the carefully crafted narrative he’s spinning.

There’s some lovely material in this show. The attempt to write anything on the current government, with cabinet ministers coming and going, is “like making friends with a disposable barbecue”. I loved his take down of the received wisdom that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag pioneered the idea of a character addressing the audience. This he stamped into the dirt with relentless repetition and withering irony. Other choice bits were a skit about his Pavlov-style erotic reaction to the Queen’s funeral and Prince Andrew using Paddington teddies left by mourners as “bait”.

I enjoyed this uncomfortable gear shift all the more for the relative silence

One of my favourite bits was a tonally jarring segue in the second half, where he started to talk about an informal autism diagnosis he’d received from his GP. I enjoyed this uncomfortable gear shift all the more for the relative silence it was initially met with. You can never be quite sure with Lee whether what you’re being told is real or fabricated. He opened with a very funny section, which referenced a conversation he’d had with an evangelical Christian on his doorstep in 1989, in which said Jesus-bothering door-stepper started to question Lee about his use of the exchange in a comedy routine 35 years later. He may be 55, but there’s still something wonderfully playful and joyfully silly about his approach.

We were treated to his now customary mockery of a typical Live At the Apollo comedian, a grinning mooncalf skipping out to deliver fatuous observations with childish agitation. And the judgement that Jimmy Carr’s material is basically Christmas cracker jokes written by a fascist? One of many lovely zingers.

He’s not going to lose his admirers and he’s not going to win over his detractors. Towards the end it was nice to see him show signs of enjoying himself on stage and even thanking us for turning up which, as he said himself, is probably a result of the pandemic and coming to realise that an audience is “actually quite important” for what he does. As much as I enjoy him putting in the boot, and generally dismantling the rank idiocy he perceives all around him, it’s nice to see a softer side.

But he’ll never mellow enough to silly walk his way onto the Live At The Apollo stage. Even though that would help to pay off the mortgage. And that’s a big part of why we keep going back to this serial audience abuser. Because he’s different, special, better.

Stewart Lee appeared at the Nottingham Playhouse on Wednesday March 13th 2024. 

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