18 December 2012

Stephen Merchant

Stephen Merchant
Opera House
17 December 2012

‘I took a lady to the movies in London.  Now I don’t know if you know this, but popcorn in London is about five quid.  Five quid!  So I open my jacket and show her the inside pocket. Yep, popcorn from the corner shop down the road.  And afterwards she had the gall to call me stingy!  I don’t understand how she could think that.  After all, I only charged her two pounds fifty’.

- Stephen Merchant, Hello Ladies... (paraphrased)

During the many months in which I attended the weekly pub quiz at the Grey Goose in Clapham, there was seldom a week in which a particular sturdy gentleman didn't sidle up to our team table and proffer a flyer for the Goose's comedy club upstairs. Said flyer-dispenser would always ladle generous hints that one Stephen Merchant - yes, him off the telly, of The Office fame - was wont to appear there. Team Mince - for that was our name - never took the promoter up on his offer, taking it to be a slice of advertising puffery, but perhaps it was Merchant's haunt after all. If so, we certainly missed out, because Merchant has grabbed his share of the vibrant UK standup comedy circuit with his hugely entertaining Hello Ladies show. 

The material Stephen Merchant relies upon may not at first glance appear too promising, but his delivery and tone is honed to perfection and he plays the reliable and endearing self-deprecation card with aplomb. Much is said about the frustrations of the terminally lanky - he's six foot seven - and his background as an unreconstructed geek. Indeed, the whole premise of the show is that it's his most likely way (or perhaps last-ditch attempt) to secure a wife. This Merchant-as-loser angle shouldn't really work as well as it does - after all, Merchant is a successful TV writer, actor and producer with numerous awards to his name, and he's hardly likely to be short of funds after the small matter of 181 writing credits and 173 executive producer credits for the American version of The Office. But on stage, Merchant's persona is convincing and, crucially, eminently likeable as he rails against the injustices of inaccurate or snide media coverage of his B-list celebrity fumblings.

I particularly enjoyed the effort Merchant put in to his show script, with multiple comedic callbacks showing that he expects the audience to keep up and build on earlier jokes - his nerdish fascination with Venn diagrams and calculator watches being but two examples. His pleasing talent for self-mockery reaches its height when he dons two items of clothing supposedly gifted by his Bristolian parents and mimics the stunned reaction of nightclubbers witnessing the antithesis of cool strutting before them. And the encore is a hugely entertaining skip through a late-1980s piece of school agit-prop theatre supposedly discovered amongst Merchant's old schoolbooks, in which two members of the audience assist by playing roles as impressionable teen peers who are variously smoking, up the duff, on drugs, and coming to terms with their deep and abiding love for the play's writer-director-lead actor. 

One can only hope that Merchant finds the time for more standup work, because if this show is anything to go by, he's on to a winner. One of the best standup gigs I've been to.  

See also:
Review: Bill Bailey, Wellington, 29 September 2012
Review: David O'Doherty, Wellington, 4 May 2012
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