Playhouse Theatre, London WC2
Opened 19 April, 2001

Two words are significantly absent from the posters for Al Murray's current West End residency at the Playhouse Theatre: "Al" and "Murray". Following his (overdue) Perrier Award and (overdone) Sky TV sitcom, Murray has been subsumed: he now is The Pub Landlord. In fact, he's The Pub Landlord™. Which is curious, because his is not a straightforward kind of character comedy.

Unlike most comparable acts, much of Murray's mileage is – or at least is intended to be – based on his subversions of the character, on little reminders that Murray is both cleverer and far more liberal than the Landlord. He does Little Englander xenophobia and throwback imperialism to a T (on finding that one of his front-row audience victims is from New Zealand, he gushes, "Oh, welcome back!"), but will also engage in high-speed polysyllabic deconstructions of his attitudes before supposedly reaffirming his original crass standpoints. Then he cuts through all the Euro-rants with the like of his observation that, since the appeal of Formula One racing is based on its risks, "The only way I can see to make it more dangerous is to privatise it."

The Pub Landlord is a brilliant creation, also accommodating as sidelines the various kinds of silliness which Murray continues to enjoy – huge bullet-headed mugging, high-volume microphone-destroying outbursts, daft shapes, surreal ruminative mutterings – and letting us see how the character is put together. (Honed though his act is, he occasionally still corpses himself with an extempore remark, and has the disarming trait of briefly turning his back to us so that we don't see the big, hard Landlord giggling.) After initial reservations, I also have to admit that he plays his chosen audience "marks" beautifully, almost always pulling back from outright humiliation or deflecting the blow so that he becomes the seemingly unwitting butt of his own remarks.

But the problem remains that Murray is not just sharper than his character, but than most of his viewers as well. A friend tried to explain the term "post-ironic" to me recently: as far as I can gather, it seems to boil down to forgetting that somebody's taking the mick. This is the curse of The Pub Landlord: perhaps confused by increasingly rabid Tory political rhetoric, we can too easily forget that this character is a buffoon rather than a spokesman. When the same thing happened to Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney in the mid-1980s, Enfield simply dropped the character. But, to judge by those posters, Avalon Promotions may now be in the process of de-emphasising the "Al Murray" that could step out from behind the Landlord. This could prove awkward in a year or two's time. Murray undoubtedly has the skill to transcend this danger, possibly even while maintaining the character; but it's less a question of what he can do than of how much of it we choose to notice. Here's hoping.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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