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Stephen Merchant At The Apollo - Review

Marissa Burgess loves the lanky laughter man

Published on October 29th 2011.

Stephen Merchant At The Apollo - Review

NO matter how nervous they were at that first gig, the vast majority of comedians are quite keen to get up there on the stage and soak up the adulation from day one. But occasionally you stumble across a handful that originally had simply wanted to write comedy and had no interest in performing it themselves.

Despite seeing him perform in Extras it still comes as something of a surprise that his performance skills are so good.

What would usually happen is the mate who had been performing their  material would persistently mess up a punchline leading to the inevitable cry of 'well why don't you do it then?' The other reason is it's bloody difficult to get your stuff on TV or radio if you're not known as a performer first.

Stephen Merchant has always struck as one of those who would prefer to remain behind the scenes. Though he took a up a supporting role in Extras as Gervais' character Andy Millman's rubbish agent Darren Lamb, in their first hit together, The Office, Merchant always appeared happy to be the one people couldn't put a face to.

In fact so in Gervais' shadow was Merchant that when they did an early interview with the Guardian they referred to him as Stephen Mitchell throughout the piece. Embarrassing. Particularly for the writer as it's now part of Merchant's show.

But Merchant had done stand up. After early career stints putting together radio shows he started stand up in 1998 and in 2001 did a show called Rubbernecker at the Edinburgh Fringe with Gervais, Jimmy Carr and Robin Ince.

Shortly after Merchant and Gervais' sitcom script The Office was made into a successful show and there was no real need, or indeed time, to head back to the stand up. The equally well received Extras followed, the film script Cemetery Junction and numerous writing projects still on going including Life's Too Short with dwarf actor Warwick Davies and the second series An Idiot Abroad with Karl Pilkington.

But with such a long amount of time out from live performance surely when he finally announced a solo tour it wasn't going to be vying for the gig of the year? Well that's where you'd be wrong... what was before us at the Apollo was a confident and consummate performer who adds a nuanced performance to the tack sharp writing.

Despite being currently busy with writing work Merchant's decided there's no time like the present to return to stand up. He claims it's partly so that he doesn't have to share his earning with Gervais and also to bag himself a lady but rumour has it it's simply because stand up is his first love. And you can tell.

The topics here are familiar ones - the main unifying strand of the material of finding a lady, his love of pedantry, stinginess and of course his height the 'latest calculation of which is 6 feet 7 inches'. But he invests these topics with such carefully crafted, inventive writing and couples that with all the right tricks of the trade pausing for effect and plenty of pull-back-and-reveal punchlines.

Regarding his looking for a lady we're not convinced he hasn't found one yet as from row J at least he's a lot better looking than he appears in photos and on the telly.

That said of course he doesn't sell himself well and all to humorous effect – it's the polar opposite of laughing someone into bed. Self-aggrandising one minute – his Golden Globe and Bafta awards being waved both metaphorically and literally in your face - and self-deprecating the next.

It's a familiar hallmark of his work with Gervais in the David Brent and Andy Millman characters and as Gervais gets to the play the parts you'd be forgiven for being surprised how much of those characters comes from Merchant. There's a brilliant set piece of being at a wedding, chatting up the lady sat opposite him at the reception and being foiled by the boring couple sat next to them and their shoe throwing toddler.

Elsewhere there's a warning that if you ever find yourself on a date with him at the cinema don't ask him for popcorn. Then there's the pedantry – 'why ask part way through the wedding ceremony if someone objects to the marriage, shouldn't that be in the invitations?' 

And skinflintery - though to be fair his speculation that the reason Judas betrayed Jesus was they tried to split the bill at the Last Supper was probably spot on.

Despite seeing him perform in Extras it still comes as something of a surprise that his performance skills are so good. Rather than remaining behind the mic the jokes are acted out. Playing up to the geek who turns the ladies off there are some graphic displays of his sexual technique including an alarming close up on the big screen behind him at the end.

The encore ties together the strands of the show despite appearing a total diversion. Merchant, with the help of a couple of audience members, stages a play apparently written by him when he was a teenager and containing some rather middle aged lecturing on using a condom and not being prejudiced. A perfect endearingly and delightfully amateurish end to a fine show.

Stephen Merchant was at the Apollo on Thursday 27 October and is touring nationally.

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