Stewart Lee Press

VORTEX COMEDY BENEFIT - UNION CHAPEL, ISLINGTON 24/04/2002 - review by Dave Bryant

It's seldom ­ if ever ­ that a casual discussion with a British property developer leads to schemes as grand and worthy as this one.
Disheartened by revelations that the Vortex jazz club was to be "redeveloped" in such a way that would render it yet another London venue for gentle chatter, frothy coffee and lilting warm and insubstantial sounds, Stewart Lee staged this mammoth comedy event to ensure that it might be "saved" from the greedy clutches of glorified estate agents everywhere.
The line-up ­ a pot-pourri of recognisable comedy names from the past twenty-five years ­ is a testament to either his influence or his organisational abilities, or possibly both. It also acts as something of a trial; tonight is the first time he's ever been a comedy night compere.

"Erm... hello.. I've never really done this before... and doing it for the first time in front of 1,500 people probably isn't the best idea" he witters, looking visibly shaken at the whole idea.
He needn't worry unduly. Most comperes are average comedians reduced to getting large crowds of people excited and paying attention; Lee is above all this, and rapidly puts a spin on the whole idea and gets the audience to cheer pieces of architecture in the Union Chapel.
It works a quirky treat, he controls the throng with more confidence than his nervy entrance would have you think he's capable of, and leaves you wishing he'd do it more often. In fact, scrap that, these days he really ought to get on stage more, generally.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jenny Éclair is one of the first acts on tonight, and seems to have been on stages in comedy backrooms and smoky clubs every day of the year since the minute I was born. Her act consists mostly of a semi-witty diatribe about the difficulties 40-year old women face in getting a casual leg-over. Business as usual then in Jenny's part of the parish, obviously.
It's not that she isn't reasonably amusing, just that she's barely even a caricature of the slightly drunken, older female office worker at the Christmas party, whilst being seemingly glaringly unaware of the cliché inherent in that. Her wide mouthed conspiratorial gasps before each big punchline begin to grate. Her belief that she is shocking belies the fact that in the sneaky-peak WH Smith modern world of "Cosmopolitan" magazine, even to men she's unlikely to be more or less than quite endearing with her coarse humour.
So she remains ­ you can't help but wonder if as one of the female alternative comedy pioneers, she meant much more and seemed like much more in the earlier stages of her career, and where she's supposed to go from here.

Which is kind of where John Dowie comes in. Lee attempts to buoy up support by announcing him as one of the true pioneers of Alternative Comedy "doing alternative comedy before anyone knew what it was", at which point he charges onstage and signals for Lee to shut up. "I'm not some kind of bloody relic", he mutters. True enough, he isn't ­ on the performance poetry circuit he's still considered to be a top draw, more respected and relevant than most young whippersnappers. Sadly, his dry and witty poems seem to work far better in smaller, more personal venues. The Union Chapel really can't carry his stationary figure reading from his books of wisdom at all well, and his final dark and actually somewhat brilliant poem about loathing his son for no longer holding his hand in public dies on its arse whereas the rest are greeted with easy laughter.
It would be great to think this kiss-off was a contemptuous, uneasy headfuck on his part, but it was probably the old old scenario of a great, subtle performer in the wrong venue with the wrong audience being forced to follow the histrionics of Jenny Eclair.
Catch him on his own terms on some other day and you won't be disappointed.

Kevin Eldon chooses this apt moment to unveil a performance poetry character of his own.
Reading with narcissistic pomposity to the hilt, his initial twisted verbiage is superb and almost recalls some of the better passages from "Jam", with the added bite of being frighteningly close to a lot of genuine performance poets from the arse-end of the experimental circuit. Sadly, despite the positive audience reaction to this parody tinged with the surreal, he soon reverts to standard crowd-pleasing rhyming jokes and wastes both the character and the stance. This seems like a half-realised idea at present, a chance for Eldon to try out some work in progress. Hopefully it will develop into something a bit special soon; it certainly seems as if it has the potential to.

John Hegley, of course, seems as if he was born with a fully realised set of ideas. A great, shambling, floppy bow-legged genius of a man, Hegley can make rhymes about dog shit and living in Luton seem like high comedy. Still looking like a refugee from some failed eighties Indie band after all these years, Hegley lollops around improvising, basing rhymes around the casual activities of the audience (a coughing man, a man carrying drinks), and investing such importance and passion into them that they become far funnier than they have any right to be. Hegley is that very rare thing; a charismatic and very physical comedy performer who has the gall to be hilarious whilst seeming as if he's not even trying. He's by now probably up there with Izzard in terms of instant, quick-witted, bizarre genius... Except Izzard doesn't attempt rhyming couplets. One of the very few performers at the moment who deserves a West-End run and indeed recently got it. Sometimes the world is fair.

Simon Day, meanwhile, arrives on stage as Billy Bleach and confidently knocks out a routine which seems dangerously over-familiar by now but nonetheless entertaining. Day scripts his London wide-boy parody with a contempt so subtle it's sometimes easy to miss it, but this is coarse stand up very, very sharply observed. Billy Bleach is aggressive, ill-informed, and hates the world (and Sock Shops in Railway stations, berating the owner with "look mate, I'm tryin' to catch a train 'ere! I don't want no socks!"), and Day hates Billy Bleach. Somehow it all gels.

From Hegley and Day's easy madness to Harry Hill's adrenalin fuelled mania, it's difficult not to feel momentarily totally blessed. Hill excels tonight, bandying around theories that Jesus was obsessed with ducks. "Man cannot live by bread alone", he wibbles. "Of course he can't Jesus. I think you're getting man confused with... ducks, aren't you? Mmm? Mmm?". The elaborate and intricate justification he weaves for this involves ducks pecking away at bubblegum then pecking at bits of fluff on the floor, getting it stuck to their beaks and then "seeming to have beards", and loses a great deal in the translation from Hill's mouth to the written word. Suffice to say, from his new meaningless Coldplay stolen catchphrase of "And it was all YELLOW" to his barmy jerking and twisted story telling, Hill manages somehow to surprise even with live interpretations of old material. He could go on like this for years and I'd be happy. The audience are (perhaps unsurprisingly) divided into people close to tears laughing and others wearing tight smiles. Several people are heard to mutter "fucking over-rated", as if this reaction of others could be in any way false. Hill is a fantastic cult figure, and like all people of this ilk you either like his world and can revel in the unorthodox aspects of it, or find it disorientating, un enticing, uninviting and ultimately plain unfunny. Takes all sorts. Personally, I think I'd happily live there for the rest of my life. Here's hoping his move to ITV doesn't blunt his edge.

At this late stage of the proceedings, Billy Jenkins wanders onstage with a guitar and his mad and developed warped blues doodles. After all that momentum, we get finely tuned and crafted subtlety again, and by now the audience is either too tired or has drunk far too much to really tune into wry parodies and deft musicianship. This is a shame, as his work is original and worthy of a closer look, but once again largely lost with this venue and this audience. The only true Vortex act on the bill, and down he sank. Oh well.

Which leaves us with Johnny Vegas, for whom a more appropriate expression would probably be "Oh dear". If Éclair was the boozy office worker near the start of this evening, then Vegas is the washed-up fat man in Photocopier Services on the seventh floor, who stinks slightly of printing ink as well as alcohol and has probably looked out of the window and thought about jumping every afternoon. Tonight was just jarring, frightening and hopefully not partly for real. It takes a downward spiral very early on when a typical, unfunny dickhead heckler won't stop blabbing about the monkey. Vegas turns on him very quickly and rapidly, as is only appropriate.
Then he won't stop.

At all.

"There's no LOVE. No love from people like you. Just hate! You hate meh! You fucking bastard! If you were in a social club, you'd get your fucking head kicked in! No! no!!! Don't applaud it! Don't fucking applaud it! He thinks you're applauding him, he thinks he's helping me now!". Vegas rambles, slurs cuss words at the angel sculptures in the chapel ("Why don't yer use the sanitary towels on yer fucking backs and fly?"), tells us he doesn't have any material ("Everyone else tonight observes, has material. I don't have any fucking material"), and forces a girl in the front row to suck on his nipples ("Go on, suck Johnny's strawberry"). The audience scream with laughter at the car crash spectacle of it all, and he then says we're to throw money on stage at him to make him stop singing "cos this is for fucking chariteh". He caterwauls, and coins hit him square on the head from long distances. He staggers, clearly physically hurt. He won't leave the stage when Lee asks him to. It's uncomfortable, I'm shocked, and I don't know if I like it or not. Before I decide, I'd like to know how much of it was a highly-tuned character act and how much of it was a nasty appropriation of the truth. If it was the former, it was an act of warped genius, and signifies an acting ability far and beyond what he's shown us in any comedy drama bit part or ITV Digital advert so far. If it was the latter, by Christ he's in trouble.

Let's not let that worry spoil the evening, though. The truth is, how good or bad any of the acts were tonight is somewhat irrelevant. London at the moment is going through a phase of bland gentrification ­ fringe venues are disappearing and wine bars and chain pubs with Marks and Spencer style fittings are appearing. Before casually dismissing the plight of what you may see as "arty farty" venues and what they mean (or not) to you, remember that one of the better acts tonight ­ John Hegley ­performed early in his career sandwiched between avant garde and jazz acts at the Klinker. A healthy underground always leads to a healthy adventurous mainstream, as the two continually feed each other.
Giving money to the Vortex is a fine start, but actually buying a copy of "Time Out", checking out something odd sounding in a small venue and stopping the constant, incessant bleating about the television being shit nowadays might be an even better step. There's plenty of brilliant stuff out there away from the comfort of your living room. And if you don't like what you see at first, try something else. A traditionally culturally diverse and challenging place such as London should not be allowed to become the new Brussels with tasteless "young professionals" dictating and eliminating the art, music, performance and comedy scenes in favour of shite bars.

Stewart Lee, for tonight at least, is the Bob Geldof of my world. Support him with your feet as well as your cash. In short, react against Property Developers everywhere; this situation should never have occurred in the capital the first place. Goodnight Union Chapel ­ and here endeth the sermon.