First Night Review – Stewart Lee: Much-A-Stew About Nothing

Ed Whitfield checks out meta-comedian Stewart Lee’s new show in Leicester Square, a pin-sharp commentary on life’s essential detritus…

comedy Culture leicester square stand up stewart lee


Stewart Lee cuts a dejected figure in the death throes of the disingenuously named Much-A-Stew About Nothing, for the show’s a pin-sharp commentary on life’s essential detritus from identity politics to internet porn, by way of a pet hamster named Ray Bradbury.

Holding his microphone like a colostomy bag and allowing his voice to drop to barely audible levels, he laments married middle-aged life – recalling envying the intimacy a parasitic worm enjoyed with his cat’s anus.

Poor Stew, we’re inclined to think, but this of course is the well-practiced self-parody that endears Lee to his audience of pseudo-intellectuals with big glasses and well-cultivated beards, as well as their boyfriends.

Anyone who’s a sucker for watching a lyrical poet oscillate between self-deprecation and aggrieved arrogance – “I am culture!” Lee tells the BBC when asked to front The Culture Show – will count themselves lucky to be around whilst one of comedy’s finest critics continues to moonlight as a stand up.

The joy of this couple of hours, the crowd guinea pigs for new material written for the forthcoming third series of Comedy Vehicle, is having your intellect flattered while the on-stage misanthrope does all the cognitive heavy lifting.

Lee may be the only comedian on the circuit who teaches you how to enjoy his show as he’s performing it. He’s like an author standing in front of a library of English Lit students (that being the collective noun), breaking down his prose.  Programming you to notice the craft will strike some as self-indulgent, a form of show ponying perhaps, but when it’s this good who cares?

It’d take an imitator with great confidence to manage an audience as Lee does; to demarcate nervous newcomers from lifers, to flag the call-backs, to labour a joke until its personification looks like something out of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, to work in a better simile for that technique; while never reneging on being funny.

Lee’s shtick is now so polished and his acolytes so attuned to his comedic pyrotechnics, it almost doesn’t matter what he talks about, but thank Glycon he’s got plenty to say.

A virtuoso routine on UKIP bigotry disguised as altruist concern for Bulgaria’s knowledge economy has Lee rejecting every wave of skilled immigration since time immemorial, “the beaker people coming here from the Iberian Peninsula, giving us cups so we didn’t have to lick water from our hands!”

It’s a typically learned conceit from a comedian whose artful jokesmithing continues to delight and impress in broadly comparable amounts.

Stewart Lee: Much-A-Stew About Nothing is at the Leicester Square Theatre until 19th Jan 2014. Tickets £15.50-17.50.