The pages of the gigantic book which forms the backdrop part to reveal Eddie Izzard slouched louchely on a sofa atop a staircase made of several more huge tomes. The design has virtually nothing to do with the two hours that follow – he just admits that he fancied a big entrance this time round.
As Izzard has grown in confidence, his set has paradoxically become less free-form. Although he still makes the occasional mock-note after an erratic ad-lib – "Nope, lost you there" – most of his bizarre lateral connections feel less like all-out rambling, as when he immediately launches into a discussion of the set's orange colour, wondering whether, when Buddhists and extreme Protestants live close at hand, one group has to wear an away strip.
However, he continues to make wild leaps which bemuse even while they delight: he follows up the orange gags with, "So, er, yes... [long pause]... thimbles!" – and he is off again. Eddie can make connections which are alternately contrived and inspired almost in the same breath; his school-band segment moves on with a shaky "And poetry is like music, with less notes and more words," but within a minute he has somehow travelled from Rabbie Burns to a group of mice re-enacting The Italian Job.
Having decided a few years ago to include a sizeable sequence about his heterosexual transvestism, Izzard has now simply digested this fact into the background fabric of the current show. The wry choices of rock music played immediately before each half of his act are Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like A Lady" and The Kinks' "Lola" respectively, but the onstage references are limited to a passing remark about being caught shoplifting make-up at the age of 15 ("I was let off with a warning" – about colour co-ordination).
His stage clothes, as in the publicity photographs, are camp but androgynous: wet-look strides and a scarlet double-breasted Gaultier jacket. These would not even merit a mention but for the astounding point that, on the press night, he managed to generate some 20 minutes of spontaneous material when a button detached itself from the jacket.
Most others would have breezed onward without a pause, in the knowledge that their audience would not particularly care. Izzard, however, attracts the kind of fans who are prepared to throw a miniature sewing kit onto the stage, offering Eddie too good an opportunity to pass up. Chatting away about nothing in particular, he nevertheless kept the laughs coming until he had re-tethered the offending article to his right breast, then nonchalantly picked up his planned set in the middle of the sentence from which he had veered off earlier.
Izzard's strength lies not just in the all-out absurdity of his imagination, but in the mastery with which he structures and patterns his material. As with that other wild rover of the surreal, Ken Campbell, emblems thrown out seemingly in passing recur much later in the show: those mice with their well-laid plans crop up in every other sequence, and 90 minutes after its original gag the duck he mentions in his final routine is still wearing horseshoes. Such details are almost ordinary for a man who has hatched the idea to follow up his planned TV sitcom The Cows with a game-show entitled Whose Pig Is This? Eddie Izzard, to adapt one of his own jokes, is a fool to be suffered most gladly.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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