Palace Theatre, London WC2
Opened 31 May, 2004

"Obviously I can only manage an hour or so, so we have a support act and a long interval," says Ricky Gervais's opening announcement from offstage. Every other comedian in ages I've seen in the West End has managed to do a full show themselves, but "obviously" Gervais can't. And the sad thing is that as the evening progresses, yes, it is obvious.

After half an hour from support act Robin Ince (who confesses, "I don't understand celebrity," and will therefore be reassured to hear that he's unlikely ever to be troubled by attaining it) and the promised twenty-minute break, Gervais kicks off his own set with a brief video clip, trailing the evening's supposed theme of politics. The clip demonstrates all the strengths of writing and characterisation to camera that made The Office so phenomenal (and no, he doesn't let us forget those two Golden Globes either). Unfortunately, it's precisely those strengths that are missing from the next 70 minutes of in-person stuff.

Gervais's stand-up persona is to all intents and purposes The Office's David Brent: complacent, self-consciously wacky and not nearly as smart as he likes to think. But Brent's misjudgments of taste and tone are replaced by an overt hankering after the bad-taste laugh. Sometimes it works, but not often. Because, to be frank, it comes to seem less and less like a persona and more and more as if Gervais simply is that smug, even arrogant. For every chuckle at his own expense there's a sneer at someone else's, from his old deputy headmaster to a bloke he once passed in a hotel lobby.

Much of the material derives from his university days, and the evening begins to assume a similarity to an undistinguished student smoking concert, with a performer who oversells the set-up phase of his gags (if protracted, unfocused rambles can be called overselling) and then telegraphs the punchlines. Even the brief encore consists of examples of the wit and wisdom of his radio producer. If this material came out of a mate's mouth in an evening down the pub, it would make for a gem of a night. But, for these six nights, it doesn't. It comes from the stage of a 1400-seat West End theatre before an audience that has paid around £25 a head. And that makes it a very poor deal.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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