Review – Rob Newman, Total Eclipse of Descartes, Royal and Derngate, 3rd November 2018

Total Eclipse of DescartesWe often think that “love” is a small word for something that encompasses such a range of emotions. “Humour” and “funny” are the same; they contain everything from slapstick to farce, to jokes, to clowning, to erudite after-dinner speeches and lots of other stuff in between. Good comedy should be challenging in the same way that good theatre is; and I love a bit of intelligent comedy that makes you think out of the box.

We’ve never seen Rob Newman before. I remember him, of course, from the days of Newman and Baddiel, when they packed a 12,000 seater arena; but Mr Newman is a different beast today. Wikipedia describes him as an author and political activist, and who am I to disagree? Over the past few years he has returned to performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, with shows like The Brain Show and New Theory of Evolution, which gives you a good indication of where his interests currently lie. And now he’s back with the brilliantly named Total Eclipse of Descartes, where he condenses 2,500 years of philosophy into a couple of hours and ponders on where we are today.

R NewmanDressed in two-parts grey three-piece suit and one-part brown-checked tweedy jacket, he looks like a classic young fogey; half boffin, half landowner. Your immediate thought might be (and I confess, it was mine) – oh no, this is actually going to be as boring as hell. But you’d be completely wrong. Yes, the whole thing does come across as a rather quirky university lecture; but, like the best university lectures, it informs you whilst making you laugh hysterically. Anyone who can quote a line like “I’m going to consider this problem philosophically – I’m not going to think about it” must know he’s on to a winner.

Rob NewmanFirst, we’re asked to consider the whole theory of selective education, and he tells us all about Sir Cyril Burt, educational psychologist and big fan of hereditary IQ. The man was an utter scoundrel, yet we’ve based our entire school system on his faked statistics for decades. Amongst other notables from the realms of philosophy we learn how Mr Newman could never get to grips with the essence of Jean-Paul Sartre, until he discovered one fascinating fact about him. I shan’t tell you what it is, but once you know, everything else makes sense.

We hear about how Pythagoras helped the world of early wheel technology with a story that’s as nice as pi (geddit?) and, of course, René Descartes, who thought, and therefore was. All the while, Mr N brings in modern references to illuminate history, and vice versa; and he absolutely crams the material with callbacks, which work beautifully. And there’s a little nugget of an encore, where he revives a much-missed old comedian to deliver a final, relevant message.

Rob NI wasn’t aware that Mr N had a Radio 2 series of the same name, where, presumably, he investigates philosophy in more bite-size chunks. If you’re a fan of that show, then no doubt his live tour would be right up your Karl-Marx-Allee. Given that this is much more of a comedy lecture than a stand-up, the time absolutely flew by. A very different format from what we’re used to; but it’s erudite, educational, and above all, very funny. His UK tour continues until 8th December.

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