Review – James Acaster, Zebra Xmas 2017, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 21st December 2017

James AcasterOnce again we welcome a big name to a tiny theatre – James Acaster’s pre-Christmas work-in-progress show at the 85-seater Playhouse in Northampton. Why would he deign to visit this humble hive of artistic endeavour when the world is his oyster? Because he’s a local lad done good, that’s why. This was the third and final of the shows – unsurprisingly all the tickets get snapped up the moment the word is out that he’s coming back.

Last year, we had a hoot. Mr Acaster doled out funny sequences and ridiculous insights and was exactly the languid, quirky comic that the nation has taken to its hearts. However, as Mr A told us in this new show, 2017 hasn’t been a kind year. A relationship breakdown, his agent dropping him and visits to a counsellor have all played their part in forming what sounds like his own annus horribilis. And whilst he doesn’t go into any detail in the first two of those events, he does use the counselling sessions as part of his gig. The whole experience sounds appalling. I could only gasp in horror; I couldn’t laugh at that if I tried. If Philip Pullman hadn’t already nabbed His Dark Materials as a title, it would be perfect for Mr A’s current mindset.

James AcasterThe evening started promisingly, with some lovely observations about expecting the end of the year and then being all surprised when it turns into January again. He then reminisced about how much he enjoyed 1999 – a great year for him – and how 2017 was rubbish by comparison. I too remember the eclipse of 1999; it was a fascinating and beautiful moment. However, not being a Manchester United fan, I remembered nothing of their particular success that year. Mr A has a lot of Manchester United material; and, to be honest, it did go on a bit. After the interval, he had more excellent material about the dreaded Brexit; very beautifully crafted, cleverly never saying the B word, or indeed the R word, and for me that was the highlight of the show.

But then Mr A seemed to lose heart with us; we weren’t responding as he’d hoped and that’s when our relationship faltered. There had been an elephant in the room right from the start – and that’s Northampton. Whenever a touring comic comes to a town, they inevitably ask the audience what it’s like living there and inevitably the reply comes back: “it’s sh*t”. This is certainly true of Northampton audiences, and I expect they say the same thing in Chelsea. It’s very trendy – almost a badge of honour – to knock where you live. Because Mr A is a Northamptonshire Native, he knows full well all the town’s downsides; and now that he lives in London he can pile on the caustic humour of looking down on Northampton. That’s fair enough, so long as you accompany it with the verbal or physical equivalent of a winking emoji.

j-acaster-2The trouble was, Mr A’s disappointment with a Northampton audience’s responses came across as too real. I personally felt like I was under some kind of cultural attack. We were ridiculed for our inability to appreciate all his material because we’re not sophisticated enough. We were made to feel guilty for the fact that we were an all-white audience; that’s really not our fault! When he changed his planned ending, because he didn’t think we’d get it, to a Q&A session, someone in the audience groaned at one of his answers; not a nasty, heckling groan, more a teasing, comedic groan. Mr A basically said that was a typical Northampton response and the show finished fairly abruptly thereafter.

Now all this could be really tongue-in-cheek on his part, all part of a double-bluff which we’re not meant to take seriously. But Mr A had been like this all night and hadn’t built up a trust rapport at which he could later chisel away. He started the night with the idea that we shouldn’t get too emotionally attached to him because we’re never going to be friends, he’s just there to do a job and go home. In isolation, that’s a funny observation to make; but throughout the course of the evening I felt more and more that he wasn’t joking and that he would have been happier at home. As a result, there wasn’t much positivity for us to grab hold of and keep us onside for the whole show.

James AWhether this is true or made up, I don’t know, but at one stage Mr A said that he’d received a tweet after the previous show that just read: “James Acaster needs a hug” (big laugh, because I reckon a number of us thought that) to which he responded that he didn’t need a hug, and that reaction is patronising. That’s probably true too. Trouble is, it signified that we really didn’t know how to respond to him without seeming to offend him, which made for a generally uncomfortable evening. He always comes across as a genuinely nice guy – so when he gets aggressive, it just feels wrong.

But that’s what work-in-progress is all about.

Review – James Acaster, Zebra Xmas, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 23rd December 2016

James AcasterI know what you’re thinking. Why on earth is TV, Radio and Fringe star James Acaster playing two nights at the 80-seater Playhouse in Northampton? It’s not even listed as a gig on his website. I believe it’s his way of saying thanks to his local fans – he’s famously from Kettering – and I think it’s an amazingly generous way of spending two evenings in the run-up to Christmas, larking around for two hours on stage (a teeny weeny one) for just a fiver a ticket. We’d seen him 14 months ago, when he performed his Represent show at the Royal in Northampton. I remember him as being delightfully laconic, eerily whimsical, and controlled by a brain the size of a small continent. Mrs Chrisparkle, on the other hand, couldn’t remember him at all. I don’t know if that says more about him or her.

James AcasterWe had been encouraged to sit in the front row on entering the auditorium, and after a summer of my being involved in countless comedy acts at the Edinburgh Fringe, the front row of a comedy gig no longer terrifies me – that much. I accept, I was expecting to be picked on, but Mr Acaster only picks on you if you really deserve it. Behave well, and you’ll be fine. His opening gambit was to point out that people only sit in the front row because they want to be picked on, so he refuses to pander to their pre-rehearsed interjections. Very fair point. But he did fix me with his stare every so often, and did choose me to explain what a DM is in Twitter terminology. What did he take me for? Obviously my grey hair suggests an advancement of years that I personally choose to ignore. Also my downbeat chuckle put him off on one occasion. But the star of the show turned out to be the fork lift truck driver recruitment consultant, and the girl he was with who isn’t his girlfriend. His noisy need to go to the gents during the first half was more than Mr A could resist. Be warned for future gigs.

James AHe’s one of those comics that you’ve got no idea how much of the show is scripted, and how much isn’t. He gave us an evening of brilliant material, including the repercussions of Lindsay Lohan’s post-Brexit tweet about Kettering (how dare she), the trials and tribulations of the conga, postcode wars, iffy celebrity gossip, and the true meaning of the Christingle. Admittedly some of this wasn’t new to us having seen him before, but I realise that you could watch him deliver the same material many times over and he would express it with different emphasis each time – so he’s really good value from that point of view!

j-acaster-2We were advised in advance that there was to be “no support act”, but that wasn’t strictly true. He was joined on stage by a Christmas tree – one of those five foot plastic affairs that the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle so valued because they weren’t messy on the carpet. The tree ended up playing a vital role in proceedings, as Mr A decided to “operate” it from behind. It’s funnier than it sounds, believe me. There was some Q&A at the end, where someone from the audience asked for the tree’s opinion on some vital subject – cue Mr A returning to his alter ego of Tree. During the melée that followed, I ended up asking the tree what was its favourite bauble. Honestly, I’d only had two Strongbows.

A great way to start the Christmas season!

P. S. I didn’t know why his last tour was called Represent, and I don’t know why this show was called Zebra Xmas. Few things are that black and white, surely? The man’s clearly an enigma.

Review – James Acaster, Represent Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st October 2015

James ATime for yet another comedy gig, and it’s one of those occasions where I’d heard of the comedian before, but knew little of his oeuvre. I’d caught fleeting glimpses of James Acaster on TV and he seemed quite quirky, and good enough to risk £15 (£14 to friends of the theatre) on a ticket. Also, considering he comes under the heading of local boy done good, I thought it was only fair we should support him. The Royal Theatre was pretty much packed, so I guess I wasn’t the only one who felt the same. It was the first night of his tour too, so you had that slight edgy feeling of going where no man had gone before, and wondering whether all his relatively untried and untested material would hit the target.

To the rousing nonsequitur of a full choir intoning the stirring words of To Be A Pilgrim – one of my favourite hymns, especially with the old lyrics, and to which I shamelessly sang along – enter Mr Acaster in a shirt and tie combo that only he could get away with. He’s not your conventional vision of how a traditional comic should sound and appear. For the most part, he’s quite softly spoken and extremely laid back. He will break into a half-hearted jazz hands pose unbecoming of his very unshowbizzy exterior; and that sums up the delicate balance of the evening – treading a fine line between a quiet, frequently surreal, rather rambling conversation and a number of very funny, hard-hitting and extremely original set piece routines that create the laughter of recognition.

James AcasterYou recognise his comic observations even if you’ve never been in that situation before. For example, I’ve never been a member of a courtroom jury but Mr A painted a picture of so many familiar aspects of a bunch of people thrown together in a hotel that I instantly recognised it; the friendly ones, the weird ones, the bully, and so on. He made me realise there is a very evocative smell of cracking open a new cardboard tube of tennis balls – I may have done that just the once as a teenager, but he brought it all back. He is also an expert at planting seeds of a story early on, just for him to return to later in the gig with added gusto. Some stories thread their way through the entire evening; others he just touches upon lightly, and you know there is a whole new avenue he could explore – but he chooses not to go down there; quite a teasing mechanism for structuring a comedy gig.

Despite occasionally seeming quite ponderous, lugubrious almost, with his delivery, he’s also superbly quick witted, seen nowhere better than how he liaises with the audience. Of course, he’s not the only comedian who starts by getting the hang of who’s in the front row, who’s on their own, who’s late, and so on. Jack, 14, with his mum, probably had no idea he would play such a significant part in the proceedings. Towards the end of the show Mr A said something along the lines of “just wrapping up now…” to which someone a few rows back, who presumably hadn’t been enjoying it much, said something like “thank God”; well, let’s just say Mr A heard and dealt with that rejection in a most positive, creative and funny way, whilst absolutely not appearing to take offence, which is a real gift. I doubt whether that person will be that vocal at another comedy gig, however.

James AcasterThere were tons of really enjoyable material – postcode-based Northampton gang warfare (I’m in the NN1 Gang too), the ineptitude and mistiming of amateur massage, the real meaning of Christingle, useless driving and an almost LSD-inspired fable that would Aesop turning in his grave. There’s something strangely subversive in his delivery which wrong-foots and fascinates you, and which here culminates in a rather odd ending to the show, where his previously lovely Feng Shui gets decimated and he tucks into what might symbolically be considered an agnostic’s revenge. It’s a very different kind of ending for a stand-up than I’ve seen before, and the jury’s still out as to whether it works or not – but that’s subversion for you. Anyway, his “Represent” tour carries on till December, playing smallish intimate venues that will really work for his sense of humour. Very enjoyable, slightly weird, go see for yourself!

P. S. No, I don’t know why it’s called “Represent” either.