Stewart Lee, A Room With A Stew, York Barbican, Saturday

NOT everyone gets Stewart Lee. Famously, Dominic Cavendish, the theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, walked out of one of his gigs, lambasting Lee for insulting his audience and saying: “If Lee had a shred of insight into the working lives of others, he’d realise that those who give up an evening to see him deserve his thanks, not his toxic scorn”.

Is Lee bothered? Of course not. Not only does he use this quote in his publicity, he mentions the stinking review in his set.

If you take offence at the tirade of abuse with which Lee lashes the audience, then you are better off doing just as what the comedian suggests: going to see Michael McIntyre. Or Lee Mack.

So when he starts the gig by lamenting the size of the venue (too big), and the crowd (a sell-out) and wishing he was in a smaller place with more like-minded people (liberal Guardian readers), if you don’t get it, then the joke is, I am afraid, on you (sorry Dom).

Happily, the crowd in York lapped it up.

“York’s vegetarian restaurants must be empty tonight,” said Lee. In a smaller venue, you can see the wry smile on his face. If you’re still not sure he is taking the proverbial “p”, he soon spells it out.

“I always pretend to be annoyed with the audience. I do it for comic effect,” he says.

We know, Stewart. And we laughed.

Maxine Gordon


Stewart Lee, A Room With A Stew, The Shed, Brawby Village Hall, Sunday

ON Saturday, as he put the barb into a sold-out York Barbican, Stewart Lee wished he was in a smaller place with more liberal, like-minded, Guardian-reading people. Come Sunday, he was, and still he was in a stew in a room with an intriguingly close-up view of England's hardest-thinking comedy turn.

On night 83 of his tour, he was among friends as he returned to The Shed micro-theatre, specially re-opened for the occasion by Brawby impresario Simon Thackray, who had earlier played his part in helping Lee climb back into the comedy saddle after four years of self-doubt.

Now, there is no doubt. At 47, Stewart Lee is utterly assured in his role as intellectual agent provocateur, storyteller, punchline pugilist and running commentator on his own shows and the art, act and arc of comedy: in effect two shows in one.

Yet even in a village hall so compact, so hot, so intense as a boxing ring, there was still a detachment from his stream of "passive-aggressive comments", not because of a need for self-preservation when met by the whites of his eyes, but because the intellectual process, the working method, was always present. It becomes comedy at one step removed, comedy with appendices.

Unlike the similarly game-playing Al Murray, Lee was sometimes in danger of becoming too clever to be humorous. Nevertheless, it was a thrilling, even exhausting experience, as he worked his audience harder than any other comic, constantly shifting your reaction, challenging your prejudices, while spinning his way through TV-bound material on Islamophobic jokes, urine, the ghosts of suicidal comedians and nationalism.

On a whim, for Brawby's ears only, the risk-taker in Lee had him re-inserting a routine on national stereotyping that had failed elsewhere. It turned into one of the highlights here, rewarding his urge to push himself as much as his audience. 

He ended with an experimental encore, not so much off the cuff as scrawled in bullet points on the back of his hand. Stewart Lee will never let the bounds of comedy rest.

Charles Hutchinson