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Stewart Lee going ‘back to basics’? Adverts billing his latest ‘streamlined’ tour as ‘Pure. Simple. Classic’? Am I allowed to use profanity, or will ‘get out of here’ suffice? Because while the title ‘Basic Lee’ is accurate – it’s the same old smartarse comic reeling out the same old ‘classic’ smartarse schtick – pure and simple it most definitely is not.

As with all his shows, Lee’s performances are as much about comedy itself as the material – the curmudgeonly lecturer deconstructing and reconstructing the jokes but only for the benefit of an audience that has done its homework. “Don’t come and see me if you don’t know anything” he chides at one point, but it’s all part of a merciless act where the put-downs extend beyond his ‘fanboy’ audience to embrace latecomers, critics, fellow comics, one-time cohort Richard Herring and rather less likely, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and audience member Luke Kennard who had the temerity to Tweet that he’d been given a ticket but “don’t really know much about him. Hope it’s alright” prior to the start.

Those elements are the basics of every Lee show, and while he does go back – recycling ‘the only decent opening routine I’ve ever written’ from one of his earliest sets and a lengthy diatribe about Fleabag jettisoned from the initial run of his recent Snowflake/Tornado shows – the bulk of the content he uses to illustrate his comedy lecture is topical, original and typically smartarse clever.

He admits there’s ‘too much material’ to work with at the moment, at one point arguing that routines about cabinet members are barely worth learning given their likely lifespan, but Lee mines everything to riotous effect, whether it’s JK Rowling’s trans-gressions, his unlikely reaction to the Queen’s death or the BBC’s choice of programme to replace one of his own comedy specials in its aftermath.

All get big laughs and are the heart of the opening half of the set, which the self-proclaimed literary artist declares is about setting up jokes ‘in real time’, with the second designed to demonstrate ‘emotional delivery’. The latter sees him land a number of setups from earlier in the night (there’s JK Rowling again) as well as explore themes of mental health and losing control, but also throws a curve ball in the shape of tales that blur the genuinely fictitious character Stewart Lee with the real one. There are knowing laughs at who his fans are (and aren’t), but reverential silence during his recollections of the late Barry Cryer and Sean Lock – ultimately used to set up another gag – and scepticism over his acknowledgment of the audience’s support at the end. Mercifully he cleared up the confusion with the caveat “some are easier to thank than others of course”, ensuring we were back to basic Lee after all.

4 stars

Reviewed by Steve Adams at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Thursday 26 January.

Stewart Lee – Basic Lee continues at the venue on 27 January, and also shows at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre on 12 February, and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry on 22-23 February.