IF Stewart Lee’s latest stand-up show is essentially one giant confidence trick then at least he’s totally upfront about it.
“I have nothing…” he deadpans at various intervals to describe his apparent lack of material, thanks to a life that now consists solely of travelling around the UK’s motorway network by night on an extensive gig itinerary and watching Scooby Doo cartoons with his son by day.
But, of course, that’s all a typical labyrinthine ruse by Lee which feeds into another impeccable lesson in constructing - and most importantly deconstructing - a whole host of disparate ideas.
As a keen student of the mechanics of comedy, Lee has increasingly attempted to stretch and subvert the form. There’s an edginess and unpredictability about his performance style which remains refreshingly unique and challenging.
Thanks to his award-winning BBC2 Comedy Vehicle show, he’s aware that some Johnny-come-lately fans may be here by mistake simply looking for an easy-going night out. “I don’t like ‘new’ people” he says of his audience “This isn’t for you.” And you get the sense he’s only half joking.
It’s a notion he played with throughout here, sectioning off the crowd between his faithful following that have been there for the long haul and those in the balconies who are less ‘informed’.
Titled Carpet Remnant World, this show finds Lee providing a framework and a cheeky wink of an excuse for rolling out a grab bag of ideas which took in topical political potshots at David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, Anders Breivik, anti-Muslim hysteria, vicious put-downs of lowest common denominator observational comedians and, of course, Jeremy Clarkson. Lee will never let an opportunity pass to lambast Top Gear’s controversial host.
There’s also an extended surrealist flight of fancy which managed to tangentially tie in the aforementioned Scooby Doo with an anti-Thatcherite rant of hilarious proportions.
In the hands of less accomplished stand-ups, it would be easy to spot the seams here but he’s managed to weave them together with such verve that his material seems anything but threadbare. There you go, three carpet-related puns for the price of one.
Dylan Moran is 39 years old. And he’s having a mid-life crisis. Having said that, you could probably have come to a similar conclusion about him from his mid-twenties onwards.
Now in a permanent state of bafflement/anger/disillusionment with the modern world, his mind is as scrambled and dishevelled as his trademark unruly mop of hair.
Broadly speaking, Moran’s an observational stand-up but the surreal twists in his tales and what appears to be stream of consciousness free association sets him apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries.
There’s a very wide sweep to his material. This show took in everything from relationships and children, to politics, sex, pop culture and the benefits of an afternoon nap. He’s particularly fond of the latter. The recent riot at the Stokes Croft Tesco store even got a brief mention.
Key to Moran’s charm is his risk-taking style. It may be all seamless stagecraft, of course, but there seems to be vast swathes of his routine left to improvisation.
We’ll have to wait until the live DVD surfaces to see just how much of his apparent freestyling was in fact pre-written and rehearsed.
It’s noticeable that he regularly challenges himself to emerge unscathed from apparent comedy cul de sacs. Moran’s been a stand-up for the best part of 20 years now and obviously enjoys testing himself by going off-topic.
In the main, he picked off his targets with ease, blurring the line between his curmudgeonly alter ego Bernard Black from his Bafta-winning Black Books sit-com and his own persona.
Struggling with life’s big questions remains Moran’s primary concern. His thoughts were particularly on the money when dealing with the differences between the sexes and his riffing on the pretentiousness of middle class aspirational types was hilarious.
Old fans will have already been familiar with Moran’s loose style, but even so there were still times where he lost the thread of where he was heading and struggled to maintain momentum. Slick is not a word you could ever really ascribe to Moran.
An encore saw him return only fleetingly. “I’ve got loads more stuff to tell you, but I just can’t remember it,” he explained. Hardcore followers really wouldn’t want it any other way.