I return to the Lyric Theatre this evening for the second instalment of Richard Herring’s comedy showcase, and the night promises a first class line-up. Aside from this year’s winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award, Tim Key, I eagerly await the outcome as I give my verdict on how one of the most successful comedy writers in the country, Stephen Merchant, fares at stand-up.
Richard Herring ambles on stage looking considerably sharper than last month, dressed in a suit that gives the illusion of authority, only betrayed by his unsteady laid-back gait. His wit is on top form as he dives into the comedy gift of last week’s Question Time, asking the audience; ‘So tell me, did anyone turn from being not racist, to racist?’, with unhidden sarcasm.
The first act Paul Sinha is a shamefully disappointing opener to the evening as he delivers his ten minute monologue yelling down the microphone with a tedious and unengaging delivery. Some of his material is funny, but the audience seems to feel awkward as he laments his story of being single since 1991, and his delivery is a continuous rant which lacks any subtlety of tone as he stumbles over his words.
Relative newcomer Doc Brown picks the audience up with his likeable demeanour and cheeky grin. This young comedian has been showing his face at several venues recently and receives Herring’s wholehearted support, being tipped for big things in the coming year. His dexterity with words makes the comedian/rapper an enjoyable act as he translates his London slang into middle-class pronunciation.
But moving on to one of the highlights of the evening, the truly unique persona of Tim Key is utterly refreshing as he wonders on stage, straightening his tie, coughing, casting squinty looks into the lights and at the audience, giving the impression of a drunken best-man about to perform his speech. It takes confidence to remain on stage in silence for the opening few minutes, but it is a credit to his ability as a physical comedian that he can get away with it.
Reaching into every pocket, pulling out variously different coloured notebooks which contain his poetic prose, he performs his outlandish poetry to the accompaniment of soothing music, but the ambience is periodically spoilt by random Tourettes outbursts, and the audience is never sure what’s coming next. His readings are interrupted by surreal quips such as ‘Got to break it up a bit. Now I will read out a list of animals I could fit into’, or commenting on the efficiency of a minidisc case for carrying Jacob’s crackers, which he aptly demonstrates by pulling one out of his pocket. From what I can see of his originality, material, persona and performance; Key fully deserved this year’s Edinburgh Award.
The act that we’ve all been waiting for however is the 6ft 7in form of Stephen Merchant. There is no doubt that Gervais’ The Invention of Lying missed his guiding hand, but with questions abound over whether this acclaimed and award-winning writer can succeed on stage, I admit to sitting nervously to see how he will perform. He bursts on stage full of energy, ducking under the door of the set, strolls straight up to someone in the front row and says ‘Well this is it. What do you want to talk about? I don’t know’. It gets off to a predictable start as his material centres around his height and appearance, but it’s instantly clear that Merchant is a great performer.
What’s strange is that he doesn’t acknowledge his fame, but rather plays an exaggerated persona of a pedantic geek, as if no one present had ever heard of him. He sits on the edge of the stage, cross-legged like a child, debating the James Bond films in a private conversation with someone in the front row, stopping occasionally to say ‘Do you want to tell them, or shall I?’ Some of his best material focuses on his renowned tightness with money and the role of men in the dating game; ‘Take her to the theatre. Pay for that. No it’s fine. Dinner. Pay for that. Then you get to take her home. Probably take a taxi. Pay for that. Then you get to her place and she says ‘Take me to heaven and back’. I mean for Christ’s sake love, I just took you to Nando’s and back. You do some of the work!’
The voice of The Office is ever present under the surface, but it’s nice to see him experimenting with different material and delivery. People warn against meeting your heroes lest your illusions be shattered. My trepidation however was unfounded as Merchant was more than capable of delivering a great set on stage. To see him in this environment really highlights his importance in that writing partnership, and signals that he still has a lot more potential in him as a writer and performer.
Herring’s comedy showcase has once again delivered a great night of laughs and he returns next month with another line-up of talent, and an undisclosed special guest. Make sure to get your tickets early.