“Are there any jokes? No,” says Stewart Lee midway through his new show A Room with a Stew, and he’s telling the truth. There aren’t any jokes as such.
But there is surreal, vivid imagery that emerges often from nowhere as it builds, layer upon layer, through exquisitely tortuous repetition.
References to Brechtian alienation share the bill with a variety of tales of childhood urination.
It’s awkward, self-referential and self-consciously arrogant and, because of rather than despite these traits, it’s brilliant.
A Room with a Stew is performed in half-hour sets, testing new material for the next series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle with topics rotating and changing each night.
Although Lee issues an edict that critics should only award the show three or four stars, rather than five, as there is no overarching theme, the disjointed format allows the construction of comedy to be gleefully exposed.
Lee checks his watch to see if each segment fits within the required 28 minutes, takes notes throughout, unravels apparent spontaneity and berates the audience for failing to laugh with appropriate vigour at the prescribed comedic peaks.
This allows Lee to play with what comedy means, manipulating his persona, his role as a comic and his audience as well as constructing, deconstructing and exploding narratives throughout.
Politically, arts cuts, the Birmingham Trojan Horse witch hunt and Jeremy Corbyn are referenced and Russell Brand is derided with the disdain of a self-defined “politically-correct liberal”.
Far from being a moralistic lecture however, Lee weaves these political themes into his performance with one of the sets ending with an exposition of the Tory party’s worst fears writ large involving the aforementioned Corbyn, an England flag and a cat with explosive diarrhoea.
On the performance reviewed, Lee strongly satirised the current trend for comedy attacking Islam, positioning himself as the put-upon comic responding to the strangled demands of a Mail on Sunday reader for Islamophobic observational comedy.
However, an attempt to take on Islamophobia through irony by exemplifying how a negative reaction to a reactionary joke can be diffused with comedic rhetoric backfired.
As Lee was shocked to discover, some of the audience applauded the joke as, in essence, his comedic expertise had been too successful in deflecting any potential objections — the audience had become genuinely confused as to how they were supposed to react to a clearly racist joke.
However, despite this, A Room with a Stew is an excellent night out and an acerbic antidote to the ranks of derivative observational comedians currently treading the boards.
You’ll likely be confused, uncertain, screamed at, accused of inattention, stupidity and worse, and, I have no doubt, love every minute of it.