Nic Wright

Review: Stewart Lee: Much A-Stew About Nothing – Mill Volvo Tyne Theatre, Newcastle

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Remember Stewart Lee’s last show, Carpet Remnant World? There were dazzling lights, recalls Lee, countless individually-illuminated rolls of luxurious pile, sound queues, and a cohesive underlying narrative.

By Lee’s own admission – in fact he discusses it at length – this show isn’t anything like that.

Much A-Stew About Nothing (or Much Ado About Stew, as it was billed by the box office) is a work-in-progress show, an opportunity for Lee to nail down several 30 minutes sets for the upcoming third series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.

And Newcastle are in for a treat tonight; we’re being given an as-yet-unseen extra set. It’s an extended riff about dog excrement, granted, but still.

There’s a sense of value about Lee’s stand-up; not only is the material itself often brilliant, but its deconstruction offers more still to enjoy. Lee is a rare master of substance and style, with a unique ability to turn the latter into the former.

Stewart Lee’s shows have often been touted as master-classes in stand-up. A claim not only reflective of their quality, but of their very nature.

Breaking down gags, and laying out their tiniest mechanisms, is a technique that allows him to infinitely stretch out a joke, getting laughs even when a punch-line falters.

Recounting a stretch of signs on the A1, on which the name Shilbottle had been dutifully amended to Shitbottle, Lee notes that where the initial novelty wears off quickly, if you repeat something enough the absurdity of it all will render it hilarious again.

Lee’s new set-pieces take aim at celebrity endorsements of political parties, UKIP policy and other right-wing idiocy, cleverly whittling statements down to their base-level lunacy via riffs on dog-owners and Britain’s long history of invasions.

However, pressed to come up with three hours of new material for the BBC show, naturally not all of it is top flight.

Wearied by fatherhood, a casual attitude to alcoholism, and middle-age, Lee resorts to chatting up cabbies for ideas, and falls on kids and a flagging marriage for material.

It’s exactly the sort of thing he berates his contemporaries for, but in picking it apart and framing it with desperate, jaded candor of a man who can’t keep up with the world, he gets away with it in a way only Stewart Lee can.

While not the tightly-spun conceptual show that Lee’s audiences have come to expect, this work-in-progress outing is still a cut above his contemporaries, and casts a long shadow over the new wave of “young men in t-shirts, remembering things.”

Date of live review: Thursday 10 October 2013