By-line: Leaf mould agitates as Stewart Lee trends on woodlanddecay.com
It is the 18th of February 2020 and I am sitting in Row B of the Circle at the Brighton Dome (Dome) for the Snowflake/Tornado tour. After two years of pandemic and confusion, we reach the 25th of February 2022 and I now sit in Row A of the Circle at the Dome for the Snowflake/Tornado tour. This isn’t a forgetful senior moment. I am not a stalker and as it transpires, I am not the only returning audience member. In 2020, I laughed a lot and felt a range of different (largely positive) emotions, however, my overall experience was one of benign brainwashing.
The first show was just before the initial pandemic lockdown, how had the pandemic impacted the show? Could I remember the first show and would my memories inform/misinform my experience of the second show? I had a unique opportunity to see the same show at the same venue two years later, the closest I am probably going to get to time travel.
I watched the Comedy Vehicle shows on the BBC too many times. I don’t think initially the first series was loaded onto the BBC player. However, once it was loaded up, I enthusiastically watched the series, erroneously believing it to be the latest instalment of the Comedy Vehicle. I thought how much younger and healthier Stewart Lee looked. His material had become less jaded and world-weary, the comical procession he had now introduced at the beginning of the Comedy Vehicle was a masterstroke, signposting his new comical direction. However, I came to realize that my version of reality wasn’t accurate. It was constructed through a BBC quirk of scheduling. I wasn’t watching them in the order the artist had created them. My experience of the Comedy Vehicle prefaces many of the themes of the Snowflake/Tornado tour.
Firstly, the first tornado and shark set of the show is organized around another television scheduling quirk. Secondly, when the show opens, we appreciate that Stewart Lee isn’t looking younger and healthier. The opening routine evolves around people commenting he has let himself go. Thirdly, similar to the Comedy Vehicle, the live shows play with different accounts of reality. I used to facilitate intense, but also enjoyable residential workshops. In the evenings, I’d watch a couple of episodes of the Comedy Vehicle as a small retreat from reality. It was such a retreat from reality which I was looking for and experienced at both the Dome shows, as boundaries between fact and fiction were blurred.
My talk of retreating from reality might sound like the ramblings of an addict, but for myself blurring fact and fiction is closer to the work of the hospital anaesthetist (but without the unconscious bit). Fact and fiction blurred when politicians implored us to stay at home and stay apart, shortly afterwards moving a few yards into their garden to enjoy cheese, wine and companionship. Stewart Lee shining a spotlight on the tenuous nature of our reality constructions will always get my vote, or in this instance my £26.
I have seen GY!BE perform twice at the Dome. Their music transitions between loud passages and quiet passages, between melancholy and moments of intense joy. I was lucky enough to see their second ever UK performance at a small theatre attached to the Dome. They played beneath the flickering words HOPE projected onto a screen. There are parallels with Stewart Lee with both acts seeming cynical and depressing to non-believers, yet there are always shafts of sunlight. In challenging the status quo there is always HOPE. There are also parallels with GY!BE and their oscillations between loud and quiet passages. He sometimes shifts the gears between quite manic and rapid monologues and slower dramatic moments, when he appears to hold the audience in his hand. One such quiet moment was in the second Snowflake set when he acknowledges and locates all of us between the end of a pandemic and the beginning of a war.
Stewart Lee is unequivocal that he doesn’t want photographs/videos taken of him during the show. At the 2020 show in the second set, he started ‘outing’ a red light that he believed emanated from the camera of an audience member. It bordered on vicious as he believed that the audience member was refusing to put their camera away. The camera situation deescalated when Stewart Lee concedes that the red light might be emanating from one of the supporting pillars of the venue structure. The de-escalation is poetic, but was this all staged as part of the routine or was this moment of annoyance unique to Brighton? I guess that back in 2020 his argument with one of the supporting pillars at the Dome, to him was real rather than contrived. In 2022, he is still clear no filming/photographs. In 2022, he takes the time to explain that a 30-second clip without context could be highly problematic amongst other reasons. Also, the place confiscated phones go to isn’t a pleasant place.
Much of the material is very similar between 2020 and 2022, but the mood is very different. I guess it always will be with a live show, contingent on both performer and audience input. My fading memory of 2020 was more laughter and more applause than 2022. However, some of the laughter and applause in 2020 appeared to be driven by our nervous anxiety as the audience responded to a performer on the offensive. I certainly enjoyed the 2020 show enough to come back for more. But I found 2022, a more entertaining and warmer experience, through being less confrontational and more participative. He references the book War and Peace at one point, and 2020 felt like the war and 2022 felt like the peace. In 2020, the one big prop in his first set failed. He then used this failure as a springboard into the second set. I guessed that the prop failed every evening, but having seen the prop work in 2022 again this might not have been the case. Nothing was as it seems in either show.
As I am more into peace than war, I am dancing around offering any critique. This is partially cowardice, but this also relates to reviews being integral to both sets and unifying the show. He jokes about his ranking as a comedian in contrast to other comedians. He dwells on every review he can find about his work and weaves these into the show. He does a wonderfully warm and affectionate impression of Alan Bennett. He revisits a positive Alan Bennett review of his work which used the work of Erving Goffman as a reference point. Stewart Lee, theatrically I suspect objects to this sociological reference point, but I am with Alan Bennett. Last night, and two years ago we were in the realms of ‘impression management’. Stewart Lee checking his reviews resonates with all of us, in an age where products, services and people are constantly and publicly reviewed. It has spawned the social media industry which is driven by impression management. I wish I could transcend this impression management, but please say something nice about this review on Twitter (@woodlanddecay). When Stewart Lee opens his show with ‘Stewart Lee has let himself go’ he knowingly swims against the tide of impression management. Incidentally, he looked and seemed a lot healthier and happier in 2022. There is even a moment in the Snowflake set in 2022 when he concedes to enjoying his performance. He goes on to suggest that this is problematic for him performing, which I can understand from the reference point of the 2020 show.
Erving Goffman (1959) usefully distinguished in the drama of our everyday lives between front stage, backstage and off stage. In this review, I have been reflecting on the front stage, but the backstage is integral to understanding the show last night. The many references Stewart Lee makes to being reviewed build bridges between front stage and backstage. He even ironically recites the lines the local newspaper could include in their review of him. You can’t help imagining his backstage self then reading the review he has recited about his front stage self.
Enough dancing around and hiding behind sociologists, I didn’t enjoy the Ricky Gervais mime on the theme of what is unsayable in 2020 or 2022. The joke was funny but stretched far too much. There is even a rare heckle at this point, causing him to pause and then continue with his mime. He acknowledges the heckler and also somebody on Mumsnet Guestbook (whatever that is) claiming that the mime goes on for too long. How can we determine how long is too long? He seems to concede a little at this point, but you get the impression it will stay there in the set as a critical touchstone.
In interviews between 2020 and 2022, he had intimated that the second Snowflake set was going to be rewritten to include his reflections on the pandemic. I would have welcomed this. There are references throughout both sets to the experiences we have all lived through with a recurring reference to ‘it is good to get out.’ I think this is both a joke and a shared truth. He talks about the voices in his head and his voices seem at times to have been ugly voices, but he broadens this to the wider mental health of everyone. It does resonate and it seems prescient and definitely in the realms of HOPE. It wouldn’t fit a Snowflake critical routine around Woke and cesspits and the demise of comedy. So I suspect, Basic Lee will take forward the mental health reflections he tantalisingly hinted at last night (please see his website for further details).
I thought that I was being clever attending the same show at the same venue two years later. However, there was a twist that I couldn’t have scripted. I have deliberately avoided the detail of the show, but in the first set, he oddly meditates on why the customer floor space of a shop is smaller than staff floor space. Fear not, in context this is part of a funnier routine about meeting your heroes. He asks the audience why the floor space anomaly exists and Harry in the front row shouts out the correct answer. Stewart Lee is surprised by the speed and accuracy of the answer and gently quizzes Harry. It transpires Harry was here two years ago like myself and Harry had also been to see the show in London. This allows some Harry based improvisation throughout the first set which had particular meaning for me. I suspect Harry and I were not the only ones to choose to watch Snowflake/Tornado more than once, what better review than to come back for more.
I entered the wonderful Brighton Dome with its otherworldly elegance and impressive foyer. In line with an eminently sensible Covid health and safety protocol, we were required to depart the Circle at the end of the show via the fire exit. The fire exit completely bypasses the foyer leading us out into the wonderful Pavilion Gardens, which I know well. If I was unfamiliar with the venue, I would be a little lost and disorientated at this point. Tonight, I am not lost, but my grip on reality has been loosened for a few hours providing a little happiness in an increasingly mad and sad world, but HOPE still flickers. However, I cannot help imagining Stewart Lee sitting in the foyer at his merchandise table doing what Goffman called ‘off stage’ work. Consoling himself that he had played the room as it was dealt. If he was ruminating on literally losing all of the audience sitting in the Circle, rest assured you didn’t lose us, it was just political correctness gone mad!
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday.
Stewart Lee Official Site