Review – Paul Merton, Out Of My Head
A trippy take on the old-fashioned variety show that was surprisingly loose and low on laughs
Well I wasn't expecting that. I just went to see a leading light in British humour and one of the most-proven funnymen on the planet, Paul Merton, and found his show weak virtually from start to finish.
Out Of My Head is a loosely autobiographical show that, as the picture above suggests, is a colourful, light-hearted, trippy collection of bits and pieces with Merton the central figure. However, tonight at the lavish Richmond Theatre, the sum of those parts was disjointed, baggy and ultimately not very funny.
It wasn't the bittiness of the show that was the problem. In fact the flitting from sketch to storytelling to improv to incidental interlude to ventriloquism to stand-up, proved rather an effective way of telling Merton's story. That story being what his brain was up to, from childhood into adulthood and early TV success.
The problem appeared to lie in areas you would imagine have been nailed, ie the script and performance. The jokes were frequently poor, and when Merton retold an old Max Miller gag to illustrate his early love for music hall, it got an uncomfortably big laugh. The biggest of the first half, in fact.
For the skits, a trim-looking Merton was helped out by Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch and Suki Webster – his long-time Comedy Store Players cohorts. But physical comedy isn't his strongest suit, and some wonky timing and a general looseness made the sketches look under-rehearsed. It's hard to tell whether that was the case, or whether they were trying to introduce an element of improv-y shabby charm that just didn't work. Merton did state at the beginning of the show that it had been partially rewritten mid-tour – a risky move that may pay off later in the run, but didn't tonight.
Nonetheless, the kaleidoscope of entertainment, its jolly delivery and Merton's story were engaging enough for proceedings to zip by, particularly the visual feast we were treated to (a giant sperm here, a flying bed there). It seems Merton is aiming to create a sort of fantastical, old-fashioned variety show, and he has succeeded in that, but there was no escape tonight's flatness. Some scenes were just plain awkward, such as the recurring "Little Paul" ventriloquist's dummy, a crowbarred Dragon's Den spoof, and an audio sex tape scene that was a waste of a good idea.
Things were hampered further by bungled surrealism. Only a fool would try and prescribe how to write good surrealist comedy, but it's bloody obvious when it works and when it doesn't. At its best, you're laughing but you don't know why. Here, my reaction was "erm, what's going on?" It's asking a lot of an audience to suspend their disbelief for some odd asides, then suddenly knuckle down to some candid storytelling about mental health issues.
Merton has a more interesting story than most comics, and he's found a more interesting way of telling it than most comics would. He has applied lashings of invention and ambition to what is a deeply personal show – a refreshing method that kind of makes stand-up look stade. And the resulting show perfectly personified his roguish, unpredictable persona. His approach did backfire in parts though, the sheer number of props and tangents making it an unwieldy beast. A few things were bound to go wrong and sure enough a few scenelets had their impact buggered because the sound was too quiet or slow off the mark.
I described Merton as "one of the most proven funnymen on the planet" and it's true. He's been the star attraction of two comedy institutions – one of stage (the Comedy Store Players), one of screen (Have I Got News For You?) – for so long now, we take him for granted. Who else has clocked up that many hours at comedy's mainstream coalface, and stayed at the top of their game? I can remember loving his Channel 4 sketch show from the early 1990s (anyone remember him bouncing a tennis ball in a leant-over submarine?), and he always lit up Whose Line Is It Anyway? in the same period. And he's barely had a professional dip since then.
So it's a bit of a head-scratcher, this one. His last stand-up tour was in 1999 so this will be out of his comfort zone, and while some of the rewritten parts will no doubt settle down as the tour continues, I'm afraid tonight was a disappointment.
Review written by Paul Fleckney