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Stewart Lee review – underpowered show still stronger than most | The comedy

“Pure. Simple. Classic.” That’s the refrain – a little ironic, would you believe it? – in Stewart Lee’s new show, Basic Lee. After a string of high-concept shows (including two recently taped for the BBC), Basic Lee sees the 54-year-old stripped down and celebrating the basics of stand-up One Man, One Microphone, as he initially defines it – a formula that soon racks up qualifiers and footnotes, as Lee doesn’t can’t do basic comedy any sooner than the government can do basic skill, but the show is more flexible and loosely structured than its usual job – which has both wins and losses.

The payoffs are about meeting a comic who seems, more than in his previous output, to be having fun – and who, after creating a baggier show to work with, has given himself plenty of wiggle room in the eight months of his run to London and turn. His material on the current Tory cabinet is ostentatiously recited from cue cards – because, given the likely longevity of Truss’s premiership, it’s not worth committing to memory. The in-the-moment jokes about the Queen’s funeral and the postponement of Lee’s BBC special also won’t be on the show forever. Current affairs are fun, though — as long as you don’t mind that most of the gags are already moonlit in Lee’s Observer column.

Stewart Lee in Basic Lee at the Leicester Square Theatre.
Sacrilege and sarcasm… Stewart Lee. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

That’s not the only recycling here, in a show that opens with a joke Lee used to play back in the ’90s, and includes a routine about cannibalized Fleabag from early versions of his Snowflake/ Tornado 2019. It’s a section I was very happy to hear again, mind you, as Lee turns his fake reverence for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s formal innovations into a complete alternate history of stand-up, in which, when young Lee dares turn his act to the public, comics like Daniel Kitson and Sean Lock – both reactionaries! – put it back online.

This confluence, of sacrilege and sarcasm, is fertile ground for Lee. So does the mockery of its audience, its own craft, and its supposed cultural significance – all even higher in the mix than usual here. There’s a choice gag in imagining the logical endpoint of Lee’s act as a mere figment of his audience’s imagination. Another section finds Lee parroting the snobbish fanboy of his own, mostly male, followers until a gleeful laugh of recognition erupts from the room.

However, this particular fanboy missed the rich structuring of Lee’s best work and found a few of tonight’s routines a bit simmering. A catchy section in the first half finds our host weighing in and refusing to weigh in on the JK Rowling/trans conversation. “It’s not about that!” he protests too much – but, while I appreciate that the opinion-holding routine is part of the point, I found him a little coy . A bit or two later (the fussy jazz monologue; the sketch imagining the monotonous work life of its audience) sound too schematically like good ideas for a Stewart Lee sketch – well executed, our patience duly tested, but devoid of surprise.

None of this greatly diminishes the pleasures of this two-hour set: Lee firing off just a few cylinders is still a richer comedy experience than many acts with full-throttle engines. It may not be pure, simple or classic Lee. But it’s a chance to see this most meticulous stand-up let it all hang out — and it’s a chance worth taking.

Basic Lee is at the Leicester Square Theater until December 17, then on tour.

theguardian Gt

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