“No one is equipped to review me.” So says Stewart Lee a little way into his Edinburgh Fringe set, having already made it clear that neither his audiences, nor his fellow comedians, nor indeed The Telegraph newspaper are going to get an easy ride here.
He’s still bristling about (among other things) a slating that our critic Dominic Cavendish gave him in a review last year that led to something of a falling out between the pair. He also knows I’m in the room as The Telegraph’s reviewer – and won’t let me forget it.
As Lee delights in telling the audience, The Telegraph has apparently published some of the “most-missing-the-point” writing he’s ever encountered about his live shows. His knowingly over-played response is to address me in a highly patronising way, as if I were a two-year-old trying to eat tomato soup with their hands. It is not a comfortable experience.
Annoyingly, though, I must admit to liking Lee very much. Currently the object of derision from the more Right-wing comedian Andrew Lawrence, in the latter’s own Edinburgh show, Lee stands apart in a profession full of stand-ups who have “Please love me” coming off them like steam. His point-blank refusal to ingratiate himself with audiences, critics or – least of all – his fellow stand-ups is refreshing.
Eyes narrowed in all-purpose loathing, he opens his set with a familiar salvo of contempt for just about everyone. People who’ve come because they’ve seen him on the telly? Hates them. His loyal fans? “Cackling sycophants.” Lee then explains that this Edinburgh run, A Room With a Stew, is a work-in-progress in which he’s going to try out material for his return to television, with a bit of “stuff” at the start. “This whole opening,” he drawls, “is designed to lower expectations to the point where basic competence seems extraordinary.”
If the meat of the show is not Lee’s leanest ever – and his fixation on bodily fluids is something that he would, one suspects, be scathing of in a rival’s routine – there is still a great deal to enjoy. Constantly signposting, explaining and yanking his own material apart, he is very funny on the “cosmic coincidence” that occurred when Dara O’Briain visibly eclipsed fellow Stargazing Live star Professor Brian Cox. Later, he is far less forgiving about fellow comedians Russell Brand, Lee Mack and particularly James Corden (“Our loss is America’s loss”).
Best of all are the passages in which we see – or, at least, think we see – Lee’s more vulnerable side. For example, he mentions in passing that Graham Norton’s chat show beat his BBC Two series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle to win a Bafta and then his faux obsession with the subject, in true Lee style, balloons magnificently.
A word of warning, then: anyone going to see Stewart Lee performing live – including us critics – should be wary of taking anything he says at face value.
Until Aug 30. Tickets: 0131 558 7272; thestand.co.uk