Stewart Lee, stalking onto the stage with that recently broken ankle, is impossible to review. Critics of his Basic Lee set can only compartmentalize what little they remember of it. No word from this brilliant bit of work can be offered up as an example of this or that. There is no bite-size moment that summarises the night. All of it is well-woven, meticulously planned out, beat to beat, like Confirmation from Charlie Parker. This is confirmation that Lee has chipped away at the perception of his stage presence, of himself and of how comedy has developed and devolved over the course of thirty years in the business. Lee smiles through another seemingly natural yet very well-planned spiral about everything from the ability to riff and improvise on any given topic for the sake of comedy to the composition of jazz and the impact of licensing regulation on songs.
Basic Lee is an intensely well-maintained set. Two acts, and sprinkled throughout is a sense of reflection. Genuine or not, it strikes a chord in those latter moments of act two, where the set shuffles toward the purpose of envy and the replication of old bits. Reminiscent charm flows through as Lee jokes about the difficulties of presenting what was once a staple of his earlier shows. Jazz music flowed under a barrage of death threats and horrid comments received by the man himself. Close your eyes and imagine the jazz, he demands. No, not that jazz. It is your fault if it is not funny. That is your interpretation. Your imagination. Much of that can be applied to this formidable and engaged Basic Lee showcase from the man of the same name. Stewart Lee is, as ever, hilarious. Hilarious Lee. No.
Lee shifts from proving he can work topical jokes into his set to the ideal BBC One-ready Live at the Apollo momentum and follows it up with observational audience-including humour that all those trendy stand-ups Lee has such rightful disdain for are utilising time and time again. Play with the form and not the crowd. Doing the former brings Lee to the latter without having to win an audience over. His faux irreverence for the medium of his work is still as inspired as it was all those years ago when he had people surround him with Poundland confetti poppers. From a lavish and long-winded understanding of Fleabag and the implications of its fourth-wall establishment to the sharp reuse of material allegedly from 1989.
His work is, as ever, perverse to those who, after the gig, want to explain what they had just seen. It is in explaining to your lift home that night what was so enjoyable about Lee that becomes an impossible task. His crafty, explosive enigma of a set is difficult to explain to a relative or loved one or bus driver because any segment of the show requires, really, an explanation of who Lee is, what he does, where he has travelled and an accurate recount of his entire show. Rather difficult to do when the stellar first act that tests the waters of an elated Newcastle crowd is lost to the murk of a plastic pint glass and the second half is spent laughing at the bloke who dared to wear a David Bowie t-shirt. Still the spectacle he was all those years ago, Basic Lee is an essential addition to Lee’s body of work, one that gets a little touching and genuine toward the end, a nice bow to tie this tour with.
Editor’s Note: Ewan met Stewart after the gig and offered a limp handshake to the man that shaped much of his feeling toward stand-up comedy and writing. He also thanked Mr. Lee for coming to Newcastle, as though he were thanking a disgruntled shop assistant for clearing up a jam spillage in the aisles of a 24/7 Morrisons.