Normally I begin these reviews of comedians by confessing that I’ve not seen them before and that I didn’t know who they were. However, this time, both Mrs Chrisparkle and I did indeed know who Mark Steel was, as we’ve seen his TV series and listened to his radio shows for many years and really enjoyed them. I’ve always loved his no-nonsense, telling-it-how-it-is political observations from a largely left-wing point of view, equally able to ridicule the nonsenses of the Labour Party as well as the Conservatives, and I was looking forward to a feast of intelligent political badinage, as when we saw Jeremy Hardy.
The Royal was yet again packed to the rafters creating its excellent atmosphere of solidarity and excitement, just like it had been for Paul Chowdhry and Hal Cruttenden earlier in the week. But unlike those two other performers, who just appeared on an empty stage, on entering the auditorium for Mr Steel’s show, the stage was already set up with a laptop projecting an image of the man himself at a Northampton landmark (in front of the big wheel in the Market Square, set up for the St Crispin’s Fair). There was also a table on which a few books stood, including “Northampton – Shoe Town, New Town” and (more unexpectedly) a Children’s guide to Exeter. I sensed this wasn’t going to be your usual evening of stand-up.
Mr Steel has a wonderfully assured and measured approach to his delivery. It’s clear that he loves language, and by adopting a comfortable, unhurried pace he can give full expression to all those idiocies of life that play a part of his act, dwelling on them perplexedly in his south London tones, an accent which gives his observations an additionally realistic bite. He’s a determined performer; you sense that he knows what he wants to say, and is going to say it, no matter how the audience reacts. In the first half particularly, he hardly addressed any comments directly to the audience, simply going through his material in a well-prepared, well-scripted manner. His approach to the show reminded me strongly of Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation, which isn’t entirely complimentary.
The show is called Mark Steel’s Back in Town, and it’s very much based on his observations and experiences in towns all over the country, but especially the one where the show is taking place – so for us, Northampton. In the first half, he covers all the usual, general aspects one would expect from him – politics (not as much as I had expected), football, religion, and so on. But it’s all seen from a viewpoint of individual places dotted around the country, like Wigan, or Corby, or Huddersfield. His message seems to be that we should embrace the differences in communities, not resent them or try to eradicate them, which makes perfect sense to me.
He gives us some wonderful examples of regional eccentricities, like the Gurkhas in Aldershot who seem to have a penchant for monopolising the park benches; or the early days of train travel between Didcot and Oxford and how the powers that be sought to keep the riff-raff out of the city of Dreaming Spires. He constructs inventive and very funny sequences of material that highlight the stupid things that happen in life, and it’s all very satisfying and thought-provoking.
After the interval, Mr Steel turned his attention directly to Northampton, and went through many aspects of life in our town, which obviously showed he had done very good research in advance. We talked Cobblers and Saints, the spooky Clown, the bus station(s), the railway station(s), the architecture, and the famous names of its past and present. It was very revealing to hear and understand the things that an outsider notices about one’s own home town. The show began to take on the guise of a comic lecture, particularly as it relied a lot on the visual prompts from the photographs that he was projecting. But for me, after this, it started to lose focus, as he continued to widen his comments to include some other places he’s visited, like the Emley Moor TV tower, or the power station at Dungeness. By talking about things in one’s own town, he really captures the imagination of the audience; but when he then starts to move away round the country again, that sense of localised interest starts to wane. He’d talk about Exeter and Monmouth, and you’d be thinking, yes but what about Northampton? He’d frequently break off and read from some of the books on the table; selected passages that show how daft some places and their residents can be; hilarious if you know precisely where he’s talking about, but merely curious if you don’t.
I’m all for a comic giving good value, and Mr Steel gave it in abundance! One normally expects an evening with just one comic to last around two hours, including an interval. Sometimes you get two and a quarter, occasionally two and a half. With curtain up at 8pm, Mr Steel didn’t say his final goodbyes until five minutes to eleven, way over-running on what we had all expected. We’d not eaten before the show and thought we might go for a curry or a pizza afterwards, but by that time it was too late for our digestions to manage it, so we ended up just going home and having a bag of crisps. Given that the final hour or so of the show consisted of a travelogue of places we weren’t overly interested in, I think we could have done with the show being about half an hour shorter.
So our overall experience was that it was a rather bizarre combination of very funny but sometimes a bit boring. Not even separately; he even managed to be funny whilst being boring, which is a new one on me. I really appreciated the obvious work that had gone into making the show though; for each place Mr Steel visits he must put in a lot of overtime in preparation to create a one-off experience. I’m just not entirely certain that, as a structure, it works. His tour continues all over the country, into December. I enjoyed it – but I was hoping to enjoy it more.