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Whether Stewart Lee is still the “41st best stand-up ever” (Channel 4), “the world’s greatest living stand-up” (The Times) or a declining commodity in the post-PC age is one of the many conundrums the mercurial comic wrestles with in his latest show.
Or rather shows, as the performance is split between the first set’s ‘Tornado’ – during which Lee queries his position in the comedy marketplace after Netflix mistakenly describes his Comedy Vehicle TV series as about sharks falling from the sky – and second installment ‘Snowflake’, when he’s forced to question his worth in a world no longer in tune with the liberal values on which much of his work is based.
The latter is probably the marginally funnier set, even though its initial laughs seem to come from nothing at all – Lee quipping that it’s unfair on any reviewers present, who at least need something to go on. The notion of laughing at nothing (“but it is something”) is typical of Lee’s show, which veers between clever and absurd, and is often both at the same time.
The weary attitude (he claimed he’d been self-isolating in his hotel room hoping the show would be cancelled due to coronavirus), superiority complex and disdain for the audience are all present and correct too, but there’s a greater degree of playfulness to this performance – he puts on voices and even jumps about – and the finale comes as close to a personal element as I’ve seen him display, though its manifestation, in the form of an acoustic guitar number, is mercifully brief.
The chances of this marking a change of tack are about as likely as him ditching his membership of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ of course, but that’s just as well, as “the comedian Stewart Lee” – a character he claims is removed from the real one – has license to skewer a range of contemporaries and celebrities, from Ricky Gervais, Dave Chapelle and Jimmy Carr to Tony Parsons and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. All are subjected to varying degrees of vitriolic attack, but in each case the occasionally imbecilic mockery is grounded in intellectually considered argument – that same mix of clever and absurd that keeps Lee among the elite of stand-up comedy
**** Steve Adams
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