No music reviewer would make a career writing about pianists solely from repeated performances of a single concerto, nor any pianist out of playing just the one piece. Yet sometimes writing about stand-up comedians can feel worryingly like this. They all hit more or less the same notes: London... young people... children and parenthood... today's dreadful music... religion... growing up in Ireland (obviously not every comic includes this movement, though sometimes it feels like it)... finishing off with differences between men and women, usually with reference to naughty bits and/or naughty business. The difference lies in the phrasing, the flourishes, the individual expression brought to the work by the performer.
Dylan Moran, appearing for seven nights at the West End's Palace Theatre while it spends the summer between blockbuster musicals, plays the standard concerto. It's in the phrasing that his skill resides. His slurred, bellowing delivery and shambling, half-cut persona (although in almost two hours he put away perhaps a third of a glass of white wine) are no longer as novel as they once were, but they belie a greater than average discipline in his material.
Moran certainly has a gift for the surreal image and the unexpected adjective, but his spontaneous flights of fancy are brief and a little diffident. He prefers to hone his phrases and seems to script them quite tightly; like a snooker player, he can control exactly the angle at which the ball will come off the back cushion. At times he simply sounds like an early-middle-aged grouch, berating young people for "texting each other because they've given up on speech", but when he stretches out and lets fly with his magnificent vocabulary, he's in a different league. He can use a near-nonsense word like "quadrangulate" meaningfully, or wonder about Ann Widdecombe's voice, "How do you get that many fingernails on one blackboard?" Sometimes the word-images work through bizarreness, sometimes they're simply there to add colour or emphasis in unexpected ways: a granny mentioned in passing is so much less prosaic when she's an emphysemic granny. And the mere phrase "fellating a Smurf" is as euphonious as the image it evokes is disconcerting.
Moran's growing film and TV career are vying with his live work for supremacy now, and indeed he's slightly less appealing a performer on stage than one might expect. But the words, oh, the words...!
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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