Al Murray: The Only Way Is Epic (Work In Progress)
Didcot Cornerstone / Mon 25 Jun 2012
Under the normal run of things, I wouldn't go to see Al Murray live. It's not that I dislike him at all, but he doesn't really push my comedy-buttons. I get it, of course, but that doesn't necessarily make it any funnier to me. I'm aware that for many of his shows, he's playing to what is essentially a 'non-comedy' crowd. When it was announced that he was playing my local however (a 200-300 capacity room), with a w-i-p show, I was interested. To see a regular act in an irregular setting suddenly made the whole thing very attractive, and I felt I couldn't ignore this happening so close to where I live*1. Now this might sound like a harsh, snobby opening (and let's face it, it is), but it influenced the way I watched the show.
And so, the eponymous Pub Landlord came to my town with a warm-up/work-in-progress for his upcoming Edinburgh Festival run and subsequent tour. There is no stage-curtain at this theatre, and as the audience are seated the minimal stage dressing is visible, a chair with two Union flags sticking out from the back, and a pint of lager placed on the seat. The lights dim, Al introduces himself and storms onto stage with his trademark blazer, and another pint of lager. The show begins…
Having seen clips on TV, and the odd episode of his chat-show, I was familiar with the general banter of his stage-show, but wasn't sure what to expect in overall direction. In terms of tonight's show, that pretty much was the direction. Now don't get me wrong, it was very, very funny, but it did seem to be a smokescreen for a lack of content. Most of the first half of the show was spent chit-chatting with the first two rows of the audience, which is great (especially for them), but the comedy-cynic in me couldn't help but wonder how much of an autopilot this was. I think Al's skill lies not so much in thinking of a witty reposte when an audience member says they're a builder, a teacher, an estate agent etc, but more in remembering which one-liners get the best reaction from his crowd in response. If you think of close-quarters stand-up as Murray's day-job, it shouldn't take too long to build up a mental encyclopaedia of banter with which to pad a little..
He didn't take it too far with anyone of course, another skill evident in his act, and he deftly skipped over audience members who weren't up for it. It was all beautifully done, but I got this impression of stalling. And yes, I'm aware that it was a work-in-progress, so it's not going to be mega-slick, but I counted two actual routines/gags in the first half, and around four or five in the second. It all works as a general act, but doesn't really feel coherent. If anything, the more interaction there was with the audience, the less individual the show felt. I liked the gags, but I wanted more. Like, a show's worth?
There's been much said about Murray's dual-layered performance, but I don't know if he's toning that down somehow, because I wasn't really picking much of it up. It's character comedy, certainly, but the abrasive nationalism that springs to mind when you think of Murray's Pub Landlord was fairly muted in Didcot. Present, but keeping its distance. Maybe it's because the audience was arts centre, rather than comedy club, I don't know.
I sound like a right grump about the whole thing, but I assure you I did enjoy the night. I just feel like I don't really need to do it again. From what I've heard fans say (comedy-geeks and civilians), I think I was expecting some sort of unique magic that doesn't come across on TV or DVD; some cheeky, subversive spark that'd make me get it. As it turns out, I got pretty much what I should have expected - A very funny, crowd-pleasing comedian, who knows his audience but doesn't have to patronise them.
Al Murray is playing warm-up gigs around the UK througout July and August, and then the Edinburgh Festival from August 13th 25th. He'll be performing a full tour of the UK this autumn. You can buy tickets from his website.
Despite what appears to be a lukewarm review, I do recommend you see Al Murray live, if you get the chance.
*1 Unlike when Mr McIntyre played the same room a couple of years ago. He could be doing a gig in my front garden and I wouldn't go. Now there's snobbery for you.
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.