Reviewer: Paul McGuire
Simon Amstell is a creative polymath, perhaps best known as a presenter of Popworld and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He is also a prolific writer, actor, author, director, producer and as is seen in tonight’s incarnation, a stand-up comedian
In the past, his comedy has successfully drawn parallels with Woody Allen, angst-ridden and therapy obsessed and also from Larry David’s sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. In Amstell’s own critically acclaimed sitcom, Grandma’s House, he, like David, played an exaggerated version of himself navigating through life with his dysfunctional family. What is this? continues these parallels both in style and subject matter.
Much of Amstell’s comedy draws on his inner self; wallowing in introspection and self-analysis. In a recent interview, he stated, ‘To me, the most interesting thing is a person on stage revealing who they are. That’s what I’m interested in. I want to see the parts of them that I wouldn’t get to see in a polite, formal conversation. I want to see all their insecurities and the pain they’ve gone through’.
Amstell, however, is not as depressed as he once was. In What is this? he traces many of the causes of his previous depression and the path he has taken to where he finds himself today. He explains that his initial forays in to stand up were a way of avoiding the personal intimacy of a relationship but still getting the validation and acceptance that an audience gave him.
The premise of this show is that his anxieties and depression are rooted in being gay and in the closet from thirteen to twenty-one and the problems that this caused his family, specifically his father. He describes how through therapy, the use of MDMA, the acceptance of his father’s shortcomings and a brief visit to an orgy in LA, he has been able to find inner peace and now has found the ability to embrace personal intimacy with another.
There is a feeling that Amstell’s confessional style is somehow cathartic for him, it is in its own way a form of therapy. Whereas his previous stand up has been a search for validation testing his amour propre on stage every night, being driven by neediness and insecurity, the new Amstell is by no means completely cured of this existential angst but he is far more comfortable in his own skin and is happy to talk about it.
For all Amstell’s talent and intelligence, he gives a frustratingly flat performance. It does not reach the comedic or emotional highs his material could and should reach.
There is a symbiotic relationship between a comedian and an audience where both rely on and feed off each other. The usually ebullient Amstell seems uncharacteristically listless and distracted. Halfway through, after he tells two ‘call back’ jokes about marrying his sister, that fall flat, he remembers that he has forgotten to tell the initial set up gag earlier in the show.His forays into conversation with the audience members are amusing but they seem to put him off his stride. One woman in the front row tells him that she is tired and approaching the end of the show he announces, ‘don’t worry there is just one more story before you can go’.
It is usual for a production with a narrative arc running through it, to have an ending that has been developed throughout the show, with the various themes finally being brought together to a gratifying conclusion. Amstell fails to do this and the performance comes to a sudden and unexpected end, which is neither witty, revelatory, or profound enough for what has preceded it.
So is this creative jack of all trades a master comedian. On tonights offering the material was strong enough but sadly his performance lacks lustre and fails to shine
Reviewed on 12 November 2017 | Image: Contributed