Bill Hicks: Slight Return @ The Venue, London

performed by

Chas Early

directed by
Richard Hurst
This show has Bad Idea stamped all over it. Though the American comedian Bill Hicks died over twelve years ago, his early death – from cancer at the age of 32 – and incendiary material has assured him the kind of iconic status that few contemporary comedians will ever come close to. What could a British actor impersonating the man in a London basement possibly hope to say that Hicks didn’t already say himself?

Fears aren’t alleviated by the opening few minutes, as a white-suited Hicks (played with precision by Chas Early), is granted a brief release from heaven and steps on stage to the strains of a Hendrix guitar solo. It feels far too self-congratulatory and knowing to be successful.

Fortunately Slight Return turns out to be about more than just hero worship and homage. Early, and co-writer Richard Hurst, have given themselves the task of imagining how Hicks would respond to life in the 21st century. The targets are pretty broad: Bush and Blair, Iraq, terrorism, but then Hicks never bothered himself with Seinfeldian minutiae when he could attack the unholy trinity of Big Government, Big Business and human apathy in general.

Early and Hurst have done their homework and the show revisits many of Hicks’ favourite themes and tendencies. There are dick jokes aplenty, as one would expect, but there is also a reminder of Hicks’ sweetly sincere belief that humanity would be better of if we all loved each other a little more and smoked a little more grass while we were at it.

Of course Hicks was a contradictory character. Full of bile and anger, he was idealistic at heart. And though he enjoyed preaching, he never liked to let his audience get too complacent. No show about him would be complete without an appearance from his notorious liberal-baiting and filthy-minded alter ego, the Goat Boy, who still delights in thoughts of “anally violating Princess Diana.”

There seems to have been some confusion amongst the people who compile entertainment listings over where to slot the production, with some publications opting to label it theatre, and others adding it to their comedy listings. Let’s be clear about this: though the show borrows the stand-up formula of one man and his microphone, this is most definitely a theatrical experience. Early’s performance is uncanny in its accuracy; he captures Hicks’ familiar mannerisms and expressions, without ever turning into a caricature of the man.

But, just as Hicks enjoyed screwing with the liberal sensibilities of his core audience, this show is at its best when it highlights its own absurdity and makes you question the merits of the whole dead comedian sub-genre that’s so popular right now. (Indeed, a play about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore was playing in this same theatre until just a few weeks ago). Why are we so keen to revel in comic nostalgia of this kind? And just where are the subversive talents of our own generation? Would Hicks even have had a career as a comedian if he were starting out today?

There is something undeniably strange and unsettling about the whole experience and somehow it works all the better for that fact. This is a revised version of a show that has already proved popular at the Edinburgh festival and played a short stint at the Soho theatre. It returns to Edinburgh this summer and is well worth catching either then or on this all too short London run.

This show will also be playing at the Arts Theatre London, from 19 – 29 September 2007.

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