“Comedy is the new opera” Stewart Lee quipped at the outset of his new show, referring to his Grand Opera House surroundings. He might just be right too. Lee’s brand of comedy is dramatic, intense and, at times, beyond his audience.
Throughout the ninety minute set Lee effortlessly kept everyone laughing. However, underneath the mirth, omnipresent, lay a didactic, challenging style. Lee is unforgiving of ignorance and regularly broke from his set to goad punters (not unkindly) for failing to grasp some of his more cerebral allusions.
I imagine that many English comedians may find playing Belfast a daunting experience, there must be something of an internal struggle about whether or not to mention the troubled past and present of the city you’re standing in. Lee had no such reservations:
“Unlike you I don’t live in a culturally divided war zone. I live in Hackney.”
The locals rewarded him for his frankness time and again; there was no shortage of spontaneous applause. But then perhaps this was not your average Belfast audience. As Lee pointed out, if all the Guardian readers of Belfast were in the Grand Opera House who was going to smooth over any pub brawls.
Lee’s intelligence is palpable; nothing leaves him speechless or gag-less. When improvising, which he did frequently, you didn’t see the struggle for material register on his face.
This comedian’s greatest talent is for building seemingly endless and meaningless hilarity only for the punch-line to hit you entirely unexpectedly.
However, the most arresting aspect of a Stewart Lee show is his vitriol. The stand-up’s capacity for hate is far-reaching, no one is too big or too small and he has no fear of making enemies. If he has you in his sights and he doesn’t respect you, watch out: I’m looking at you Michael McIntyre.
Lee’s latest show is yet another work of artistic brilliance. But it isn’t for everyone; this is exclusionary comedy for an intelligent, sharp, liberal minority. Lee uses this show to talk about the world as he sees it, his understanding of it and, often, his utter exasperation with it. You can tell Lee really couldn’t care less whether he has universal appeal or not, he won’t put on a front; his satirical meanderings, his irony, his fury are who he is. This isn’t a character, or an act, this IS Stewart Lee.