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Paul Merton’s Out Of My Head, Grand Opera House, York, May 4
DEADPAN Have I Got News For You team captain Paul Merton is emerging from behind his desk after 22 years to take his new stage show, Out Of My Head, on the road.
Joined by regular comedy co-pilots Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster, the London comedian will be stopping off at the Grand Opera House in York on May 4 for a night of stand-up interspersed with sketches, music, magic and variety.
In doing so, Paul will complete a hat-trick of contrasting shows at the Cumberland Street theatre, having appeared there in Paul Merton’s Impro Chums in May 2010 and in Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, his tribute to the silent movie greats, in April 2009.
“We’re having such a great time with Out Of My Head,” said Paul during rehearsals for a 50-date tour that began last month. “It’s about taking the plunge and devising a show that is fully scripted. It has stand-up, sketches, interaction with the audience, and a few things that will startle people.”
Paul has always thrived on taking to the stage, having been a key member of the improvisational troupe the Comedy Store Players in London since their formation in 1985. “I get such a buzz from performing live,” he says. “It’s just the best rush in the world, better than anything else you can think of.
“If you’re trying to convince a TV producer that something is funny, it can take ages, but if you have a good idea with the Comedy Store Players, you can just say it there and then. You don’t have to take it to a commissioning editor, or get a budget and have the comedy kicked out of it by a committee. And you immediately know whether it’s funny because you’ll hear the sound of laughter – or not!”
Being on stage inspires the quick wit that is Paul’s trademark.
“You just ride the wave of laughter, and then you might come up with something equally funny,” he says. “Ralph Richardson used to talk about pushing a huge ball up a hill to the point where it suddenly gains momentum and starts rolling down the other side. That’s what live comedy is like. The only snag is, you have to do it while trying to look completely relaxed.”
He likes to stay “in the zone” by performing each weekend with the Comedy Store Players. “That feeds into everything else I do. When Have I Got News For You comes around, I don’t think, ‘Oh no, I’m a bit rusty’. Doing The Comedy Store Players every Sunday, you’re match fit all the time,” says Paul, who will turn 55 on July 9.
“It’s a performance muscle. If it’s not getting flexed, it gets flabby.”
In contrast to his impro work, Out Of My Head presents an opportunity to refine material. “With this show, we get to repeat moments we really enjoy,” says Paul. “In impro, you can’t go back and do it again, but here you can say, ‘What if I delay my entrance tonight by five seconds to build up the tension? Will that make it funnier?’ “Here you get the chance to create a show over a sustained period of rehearsal – and that’s wonderful.”
Should you be wondering why Paul is touring with friends rather than solo, let him explain: “Having spent so many years working with other people, when I did a stand-up tour on my own in 1998, I really didn’t enjoy sitting alone in the dressing room during the interval,” he says.
“Everything I do is team stuff. It’s much more fun if you’re not twiddling your thumbs on your own.”
Out Of My Head covers such topics as the class system and the spell Paul spent in hospital after falling ill from anti-malaria tablets, but the principal theme is imagination. “I went to a Catholic school, and when I was ten, I wrote an essay which the nun who was teaching me really didn’t like because it was imaginative. She didn’t like imagination,” he recalls.
“It was one of those things that you know as a child is desperately unfair but you can’t do anything about it because you’re only ten.
“According to her, if you wrote something untrue, then it was a problem. At the time it felt very humiliating to stand up in front of the class and have to explain why I wrote that.”
Paul hated that nun for years. “But now I realise that experience was very good for me,” he says. “I had never bought into the Catholic church that much, but because that nun was so against imagination and I was so into it – I was already reading Spike Milligan – I just knew she was wrong.
“So I began thinking: ‘A nun who is wrong about something so fundamental might well be wrong about other stuff too’. Imagination has built my entire career and this show is a celebration of imagination.”
• Paul Merton’s Out Of My Head, Grand Opera House, York, May 4, 8pm. Tickets update: selling fast but still available; prompt booking is advised on 0844 871 3024 or atgtickets.com/york