If you know who Dylan Moran is you’ll know what a spectacularly absurd poster currently adorns the façade of the Apollo Theatre of Shaftesbury Avenue in London. He looks more like a polished Robert Smith, photoshopped almost beyond recognition, hair sculpted and adopting a pose more fitting to a member of the Matrix than a stand-up comedian. I wonder if it’s an attempt to bring in a broader audience but what idiot would walk into a theatre on the strength of the poster alone (ahem)? If they’re expecting that Moran, they’re to be sorely disappointed for, as the house lights dim, he takes the stage with his characteristic unkempt locks and ill-fitting wardrobe, lolling Shaggy-esque up to the microphone, nothing like the poster. Trademark glass of red wine in hand (incidentally, I’ve never quite got whether he’s genuinely half-cut or just a clever actor using that as his McGuffin), he greets the audience with a diffident “Hello”…and gets a laugh.
It immediately casts me back to 1995 and, as a student living in Balham, South London, the Banana Cabaret was a big draw among comedy venues. Stand-up was hitting saturation point as comedy gigs were two-a-penny plying their trade in pubs up, down, in and out of the country. Actually, they were quite pricey, if I remember rightly but, anyway, comedy was the night out of choice and new acts were so pervasive that only a few venues managed a crop of genuine funnymen. The Banana was one (still is) and Moran was a highlight. A year later and Moran would win the Perrier prize at Edinburgh and I’d not see him on stage again, until last week. In between he’d grace our TV screens in Black Books and our cinema screens with Shaun of the Dead and the wonderfully under-rated The Actors. Back in the present and it’s like catching up with an old friend; for comedians have a tendency to endear themselves, like an old college pal that you don’t keep in touch with as much as you’d like but every time you meet he cracks you up with anecdotes and banter.
Moran’s humour is the observational sort and “What It Is” is his latest stage incarnation, arriving in London following a national tour. He doesn’t tell a joke the entire show but it’s ninety minutes of sublime observation littered with such brilliant versatility of language and punctuated with random segues, red-herrings and side-tracks, his imagination seems almost childlike. More’s the point, it’s delivered almost with reluctance, sometimes (apparent) forgetfulness and a curmudgeonly indifference to his audience (there’s a moment where he snaps at us to “shut up”, which only gets another laugh). I’m sure I wasn’t the only one but I walked out of the gig feeling funnier, finding myself attempting Moran-esque verbiage to my other half only for it to taper off dismally from her withering look as if to say, ‘don’t ruin it for me’.
At a time when the theatre seems to be broadening its remit beyond recognition (who’d have thought Boney-M would have a ‘show’) and comedians are filling stadiums, “What It Is” with the intimacy of the venue and the no frills feel to Moran’s performance feels like a gentle hark back to early vaudeville, a real crowd-pleaser and a happy night out for cosy winter evening. Better still, and somewhat serendipitously, the following evening my other favourite comedian and Moran’s former Black Books co-star and rival Perrier finalist (he lost out to Moran that year on what was the closest judges’ call in the festival’s history) was on telly: Bill Bailey. It was a stadium gig and riddled with gimmicks. It was brilliant, too. See? What can I say; be it a tiny pub or Wembley Stadium, a good comedian’s a good comedian.
What It Is is running in London at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue until 5th December.