Saturday, October 29, 2011

Stepping out of the shadows - review of Stephen Merchant

Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies at The Anvil, Basingstoke on Friday, October 14

FOR a extremely tall bloke, Stephen Merchant has spent a long time in the shadow of his ebullient screenwriting partner Ricky Gervais (well, in fact, not so much in the shadow as stood behind him, with his head cropped off by photographers, as in an ignominious shot taken on stage at the Golden Globe Awards). But finally he has chosen to go it alone return to his stand-up comedy roots.

So be it because he doesn’t have to share the profits with “you-know-who” or wishing to forge a career in his own right when Gervais is living it up in Hollywood. Whatever the reason, it turns out that for all the hype of a performer who can book a large venue tour without the traditional stand-up slog of the Edinburgh Fringe and endless club slots, Merchant is a natural funnyman who can hold an audience of hundreds in the palm of his hand and tickle them until they giggle helplessly.

Based around the schtick that he can’t attract a potential wife, despite his top geek credentials (including a treasured Blue Peter badge which gains free entry into all sorts of attractions) and careful ways with money (always attractive in the early throes of romance), Merchant mixed self-deprecation and outrage (being called “Stephen Mitchell” throughout his first national press interview, and used as a landmark by a girl wishing to rendezvous with friends in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve).

Playing on his gangly awkwardness and boggly-eyed features (and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible; he isn’t an unattractive man) to the max, Merchant’s onstage persona is generally the polar opposite to that of the often-spikey Gervais;  not just physically but in his easy likeability. Sure, there were echoes of Gervais’ stand-up performance when Merchant demonstrated (mock) false modesty in using his BAFTA in place of a baby in his audience-participatory staging of his GCSE Drama script Choices.

However, with much of Gervais’ own person having been developed through his screen characters of David Brent (The Office) and Andy Millman (Extras), both co-written with Merchant, any reflection was likely to come from Merchant’s own style rather than the inspiration of his writing partner.

Merchant’s management certainly know what they’re doing, with a forthcoming release of a tour DVD in time for Christmas, but quite rightly - I left wanting to see much more. Sadly aside from having an aversion to stand-up comedians performing in the arena-size venues that Merchant is more than likely to sell out on his next tour, I fear that his Transatlantic television writing/acting career may mean that such solo shows may not be as regular an occurrence as would be desired. In the meantime, I would be happy to find Merchant in my stocking on Christmas Day... if you see what I mean.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, October 20, 2011

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