Review – Doug Stanhope at Hammersmith Apollo
A weary performance from Doug Stanhope – not that his acolytes seemed to care
Doug Stanhope is in love with his British audience and, it seems, the feeling is mutual. Coming at the end of a 40-plus date tour of the UK, this nearly packed-out gig at the 3,500-seater Hammersmith Apollo felt like a gathering of the tribe: Stanhope’s followers may be a shambolic, nihilistic lot, but they are a force to be reckoned with.
A boozy, chaotic atmosphere was encouraged by sheer force of Stanhope’s loser persona: “If we can get through this night without someone getting thrown out,” he said, “we’ll have increased our winning streak. To one.” It was a wonder how he kept his thread at all with the constant stream of punters passing to and from the bar. But then Stanhope’s is an act that revels in down-at-heel chaos: all those Edinburgh Festival shows with a theme and a narrative of self-discovery are, to put it mildly, not for him.
He makes a more endearing first impression than you might expect: a tiny figure shuffling onto the huge stage in an out-sized suit, he looked like a disheveled 11-year just home from his first day at Big School. Admittedly, years of hard-living have given him a more weathered, florid complexion than you tend to find on a prepubescent and, in any case, this early illusion of innocence is pretty quickly shattered. He was soon chronicling his desperate search for fetishistic porn while staying at an airport hotel: it set the tone for an evening where graphic sexual descriptions were not so much elevated to an art-form as mass-produced like Happy Meals. He went on to lament the appearance of charities at sporting events, going into minute detail about how they interrupt the homoerotic pleasure of watching football on a Sunday afternoon. It was like seeing Bill Hick’s five-minute routine about a scat-munching Rush Limbaugh stretched out into a 90-minute onslaught.
But, to be fair on him, it was not an entirely one-note act. His routine about the Occupy movement entertainingly threw out ideas for more effective means of civil disobedience, and his complaints about being frisked for drugs at a Canadian airport were sharp and relentlessly logical. Most crowd-pleasing of all, though, was an account of his recent feud with Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson: it began with her opinion piece on the locked-in Tony Nicklinson's plea for a right to die, and escalated into a Twitter war of words. Stanhope’s corner has largely been fought by his 90,000 followers, who Pearson has called an army of “killer termites”. The comedian has gleefully appropriated the description, slyly telling the audience that “it would be wrong and vindictive to leave reviews of her novels on Amazon.” Expect to see the crowd-sourced invective piling up already.
All of this may sound like an invigorating torrent of fury and filth but, to be honest, it was a pretty weary performance. Stanhope described his gruelling last two months as the “Unrealistic Expectations tour” – playing 1000-seater venues to audiences of 300 – and the exhaustion showed. When his Pearson tirade ended with an instruction to the crowd to read and disseminate his blogpost on the subject – where, by his own account, he has expressed himself more sharply – you get the feeling of a comedian running on empty.
The show ended with a long tribute to life in the United States, where none of the petty inconveniences, inefficiencies and crappy weather of the UK grind people down and – in his view – the dumber comedy audiences put less pressure on comedians to perform. Accompanied on acoustic guitar by support act Henry Phillips, it was a slight poke in the ribs to an audience expecting the usual anti-American diatribes. But then the love-in continued as he invited everyone to come sleep on his couch in the States. It’s hard to imagine an audience putting less pressure on a comedian than this one. Even when there weren’t laughing, they were fist-pumping the air in righteous agreement.
As may be clear, I was in a minority – perhaps of one. Sometimes the mutual adoration felt so intense that, as only a casual Stanhope follower, I felt distinctly left out. You can’t even trot out the old cliché – "get a room". He'd got a room, a very big room, and had managed to fill it with thousands of adoring fans. It’s just not a place I’d particularly want to visit again.
Review written by Pete Kelly