Lucy Morrison and Will Adamsdale
What could possibly link Mark Ravenhill, the Damien Hirst of the theatre world, and Stewart Lee, the creator of the puzzlingly controversial Jerry Springer – the Opera?
Presumably what appears to be a bloody-minded ability to inspire controversy and then thumb their nose at it? So stick two monologues together which treat Islam and Christianity with irreverence and hey presto – instant holy war, right?
Possibly, but not tonight. Perhaps the – for once – ambiguous titling by Ravenhill of Product has, for now, disarmed those who might seethe about its story within a story of a Muslim Jihadist who has sex with a widow of the Twin Towers attacks. And perhaps the Christians have got tired of harassing Lee for his obsession with telling the truth, as he sees it, about the gospels. More fun for the rest of us, then, in this thoroughly entertaining, only slightly disappointing, juxtaposition of dramatic voices.
To start with Ravenhill, Product is a remix of his Edinburgh show of 2005 where the writer himself plays a film producer, James, pitching a film to Olivia, an A-list film star – a “Sienna Miller type” as he has put it. James strolls camply about his office, telling her the film’s story – a tasteless Hollywood take on the 9/11 bombings which is surely, in reality, only just around the corner.
Ravenhill is a revelation as a performer. He looks somewhat like a fat Dr. Evil in an Armani suit, but it is more than his physical size that gives him his stage presence. For 60 longish minutes he holds my attention in what is a fairly sharp, if perhaps a little obvious, satire on the world-renowned ability of Hollywood to take any important event and cheapen it.
As a storyteller he is more successful here, in my view, than in the vacuous Shopping and Fucking. His beautifully timed, almost self-referential, comic defusing of some of the shocking images and language he uses with lines such as “we had a theatre writer work on this bit” or “it’s a private note – we won’t shoot it” are immaculate. His foil, the mute Jo Lobban, does a superbly understated line in eyebrow raising, and the whole thing is mesmerising, if maybe fifteen minutes too long.
I have forgiven Lee, no longer the lithe young man of his Fist of Fun days, for not allowing me to review Talk Radio at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – admittedly he might not have known anything about it but, reading between the lines, it does seem he has not forgiven those who trespassed against him in 2006. His brush with Christian fundamentalism is surely the impetus behind this engaging ‘stand-up theatre’ routine where, in the style of himself, he relates Judas’s version of the events that led to Christ’s crucifixion.
Lee has the natural story-telling knack that all the best stand-ups possess. In this semi-theatrical monologue (which he is hoping to turn, by the end of run, more into a discussion group based around nuts) he subverts the usual comedian’s trick of asking “who are you, sir, and where are you from?” in order to find a hook for his wit, by asking the audience questions in the manner of a Sunday School teacher, testing our knowledge and engagement with his act. Going slightly further than Brecht might have, he not only talks to his audience, he gets them on stage to re-enact the Last Supper and hands the rest of us wine and bread. However, superb a storyteller as Lee is, like the free victuals he plies us with, they fail quite to satisfy as Ravenhill’s piece manages without the audience-pleasing demagoguery.
What is interesting about both these two shows is how far in both the storyteller and the story become entwined. Ravenhill’s piece could be done justice to by any good actor, yet the writer chooses to put himself centre-stage. Lee’s story is told in such a personal way and in such an idiosyncratic style, it could not be performed by anyone other than him. Ultimately, much as I have disliked Ravenhill’s work in the past, it is the daring and complexity of his piece which allows it to live with you long after the blackout. Lee’s piece is a brilliant bit of nouveau stand-up, but, sadly for him, ideas cannot live on Tesco-bought bread alone.