STEWART Lee boasted of his unreview-ability during his set on stage at the Phil this week, and it’s fairly likely anyone attempting to critique his latest set will make mention of that fact at some point. His act is so nuanced and layered, so sophisticated and unflinching, that could probably be true. He’s hard to pinpoint, but on top of that, for this writer there has practically never been a time Lee hasn’t been on the cultural landscape in some way or another. It’s not so much that reviewing him is impossible, so much as doing so without bias.
As a long-term fan of Lee’s work in all its forms, his irascible, mischievous satire has always made sense; yet I wonder what I’d make of it all if I’d only just heard of him. Would I get it? Or would it be easy to feel excluded and out of the joke?
The two nights at the Phil – A Room with a Stew – were test running material for his next series of the Stewart Lee Comedy Vehicle, which over the seasons has become an absolute treasure of a show, worth the licence fee alone. Cerebral, uncompromising, political; but daft enough never to be above a fart joke, Lee’s delivery is nothing short of a masterclass, even if the material isn’t perfected.
He knows the score, and placates the audience with enough talk about time spent in Liverpool over the years to keep the faithful feeling loved. Lee draws the audience in, to lead them down the garden path. His tried and tested playful, confident style is beguiling. Tall tales and shaggy dog stories may begin with a riff about a seemingly everyday argument with the wife, or an anecdote about the kids, only to end up a cleverly disguised observation on the machinations of modern Britain (quite likely a spectacular attack on a favourite target, ‘the UKIPs’).
Lee’s live set has evolved to become something more akin to performance art than traditional stand up. He navigates risky material with an admirable nerve and deconstructs comedy norms; some of his more crowd-pleasing contemporaries get short shrift, which has it’s moments but can sometimes come across as mean-spirited. But there is simply no-one out there doing what Stewart Lee does to any kind of similar standard. Down the road at the Empire, the broad, cartoonish satire of The Producers is gleefully and beautifully doing its thing in a flurry of gigantic, glittery swastikas; and over at the Phil, simply one man with a mic and an audacious comic mind is deftly pushing boundaries in his own understated way, with an intelligence and dedication to the craft that is beyond compare. Yes, it’s hard to review his act; sometimes you can only sit there in awe.
(The picture above is a still from the BBC’s Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and wasn’t taken at the Phil)