So, Paul Merton: “a return to your stand up roots for the first time this century”, according to your flyer. I can just about accept that. “A return to stand up” say some theatres’ websites. No: that is inaccurate. “Paul Merton, Out of my Head” is not a stand up show. However, actually defining what it is proves rather tricky. I think the closest you can get to it is that it is actually a fully scripted play for four performers. The text contains elements of stand up, of improvisation and of sketches, but the whole structure of the show serves to distance the audience from these elements, rather than communicate the content (and presumably some humour) to them. So unless Paul Merton’s gone all Brechtian on us, this show simply misses the mark.
The other main aspect to this offering is that it really isn’t at all funny; which is more than a shame really, because that’s precisely the reason you went out to see this show in the first place. It’s an autobiographical look-back at his life from his childhood to the present day, with a heavy concentration on his mental health problems. But you can’t compare this with, say, Ruby Wax’s Losing It, where she completely strips herself bare (figuratively speaking) and gives you first-hand genuine insight into her mental condition and her practical coping strategies. Paul Merton doesn’t open the door to his inner recesses at all. If anything, the real Paul Merton is wrapped and kept hidden well away from our prying eyes and ears. By not letting us into his real thoughts, you feel the whole thing is mere window-dressing, a deliberate obfuscation rather than using comedy to reveal the truth.
For some unexplained reason, the set and promotional literature suggest a Victorian theme, and I suppose it is true that some of the material – the ventriloquist act, “black light” theatre animation, for example – may have been around in those days. Maybe it relates to one of the funnier lines, that Have I Got News For You has been around so long that one of its first presenters was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Otherwise, I can’t see the point. Some of that black theatre animation was good, mind you. I liked how the ventriloquist dummy came to life, and how Sister Galista spread out all over the backdrop. Note to performers though – I don’t think The Black Theatre of Prague ever wore trainers with white flashings – kind of gives the game away.
To be honest, I didn’t see the point of most of it. There’s a Belisha Beacon type thing that lights up and alerts every time Paul Merton swears. Given the fact that he doesn’t swear as much as most comics, it’s totally irrelevant. He constantly returns to “Little Paul”, the ventriloquist dummy of himself, but it’s not as though the dummy says the things that the real Paul wants to, but can’t, say. I’m not sure why he’s there – certainly not for humour. Little Paul, along with the rest of the cast, are all dressed like Paul Merton in his light grey suit. They all look like him; they all talk about him; it’s all about him; you sense this is therapy by vanity.
I’d like to be able to say that his supporting cast were there to lighten the mood and create a comedy buffer zone that you could dip in and out of; unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. Rather than they bringing the overall performance up, I think Paul Merton dragged theirs down. Certainly nearly all the little sketches were weighed down by pointless unfunniness, leaving gaps where we were meant to laugh and applaud that just got filled with embarrassing silence. On those occasions where they did have a good comic idea, it got done to death. Additionally, Suki Webster got the words to the finale song wrong which emphasised the air of amateurishness.
So explain this then? I find Paul Merton very funny when I see him on “Have I Got News For You”, and when he’s on radio’s “Just a Minute”. But this show is hugely disappointing. He seems to be at his best when he’s interacting with other people, talking as unscripted as possible, and doing his celebrated flights of absurd fancy sequences. Sadly this show has very little, if any, of that. There is an “improvisation” sequence, which perked the show up a little – just because it was a change of pace – but again it showed off the performers’ technical ability more than actually being “funny”.
Quite a few people left halfway through. At only 1 hour 50 minutes, it’s a short show including the interval but I’m reminded of clouds and silver linings. The odd thing is, that, despite all this criticism, both Mrs C and I found it strangely watchable – we’re not sure why, as it wasn’t for the comedy. It wasn’t even the ghoulish pleasure of witnessing a car-crash – it didn’t have enough energy to crash. To be fair, there were a few laughs occasionally tucked away, frequently when he was quoting other, funnier, people like Max Miller and Julian Clary. I think only the politeness of the audience and their overall respect for his back catalogue prevented him from being mercilessly heckled. A fairly full house was buzzing before it started but had flatlined by the end. This is touring till the end of May, so you’d better bring your own jokes with you. An evening of Slight Entertainment.