Gielgud Theatre, London W1
Opened 18 November, 2008

Why do even big-name comedians make their own pre-entrance “Please welcome...” announcements? Partly, I suspect, so that they can get some material out of it, as Bill Bailey did at the top of the second half of his press-night performance. It’s five years since I last saw a full show of Bailey’s, and I still recognise some of the material: it may be a different techno backing with different George Bushisms sampled on top, but the principle is clearly the same. The Tinselworm tour itself has already spawned a DVD, so there is a sense of stuff being retired here as he prepares to move on; exit Bush, enter the beginnings of an Obama segment.
The half-stoned surrealism – what former Never Mind The Buzzcocks presenter Mark Lamarr once summed up as “cheese and weasels” – is much less in evidence now. (Bailey himself has since also quit that TV comedy quiz.) The driving vision is the same, but there’s a sharpness now, at times even a touch of viciousness. His routine about Swiss banks and Nazi gold, for instance, is so genuinely motivated and so mordant that it would not be out of place in a Mark Thomas show. His phrase-making has also moved further to the fore, as he casually revels in phrases like “slack-jawed Luddites” to describe shoppers at self-service supermarket tills, or decries “horse-faced drivel-monger” Lionel Richie (“I know,” he admits, “pot/kettle”).
The eclecticism of Bailey’s material is as delightful as ever: having opened with a seemingly new bit about bouncy castles, he works up to a pitch where he can switch topics in seconds from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard without straining. I doubt that more than a handful in the audience spotted that, in one of his foreign-language outbursts, he has also taken the time to work out what the German is for “pretty please”. And the music, of course, holds everything together (want to hear some Country and Western played on an oud? – Bailey’s your man), to the extent that his pacing backwards and forwards suggests that he feels slightly ill at ease when not behind an instrument. My last review of Bailey worried that “reliable” can be a double-edged term; so it can, but one of those edges is positive.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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