This autumn sees a flood of comics in the West End. From the traditional to the alternative, theatre producers struggling to fill their theatres seem to have woken up to the fact that comedy is at least cheap to produce and popular.
Leading the vanguard is Ross Noble whose new show Unrealtime has just opened at the Garrick. Noble is a brave comic who doesn’t shy away from hecklers, and who uses audience interaction as a major plank of his performance. He doesn’t so much pick on members of the audience as invite them to become part of his surreal world. Drunken interjections from the front row, and latecomers are all part of the narrative. A sot in the front row, out to humiliate the comic, referred disparagingly to his Northerness -- Noble is from Newcastle -- and right at the end asked him if he knew any jokes. It was hard to know if he was being offensive or just drunk.
Noble is so nice that he almost invites such bullying from the audience. He doesn’t tell jokes about minorities or gays. Instead he gives us a kind of postmodern stream of consciousness, a lost-in-cyberspace mixture of TV programmes (24), observational comedy, and flights of fancy. One of his digressions concerned rappers who he noted endlessly tell each other to "keep it real". Suddenly he leapt to a concern about the space-time continuum, and wondered if there would ever be a rapper who might consider "keeping it vaguely imaginary". The show, however, suffers from being played in a big old Victorian Theatre where Noble loses intimacy with his audience.
It takes a little while for him to settle, and to warm up the audience. Things relax when he discovers what appears to be a nun in the fourth row. He is genuinely puzzled as to whether she is a real or pretend nun, a mystery solved only when she started drinking lager. Noble thrives on such incongruities, and his own enjoyment is infectious. A certain amount of the show is simple silliness, which left me fairly cold. Some of the targets, like street fundraisers and Hari Krishnas, are also pretty obvious. But there were moments of real humour, and oddly they were also the moments of greatest cruelty. His sick jokes about the late Barry White being called in by the Prime Minister to "sex up the dossier", and his impression of Stephen Hawking interviewing a monkey with a Yorkshire accent, were both close to the knuckle and very funny.