Review – Craig Campbell at Bloomsbury Theatre

Tuesday, May 29 2012

Pete Kelly overcomes his fears to find Craig Campbell getting better with age

Craig Campbell

Ten years ago I saw Craig Campbell completely dominate a small room beneath a cinema in in York. He was so good, so commanding, that the prospect of seeing him last night at Bloomsbury Theatre gave me two fears: would he be telling the same stories a decade later? And could he possibly create the same hysterical atmosphere in such a large venue?

There was no need to worry. This time round, unsurprisingly given the venue and the lack of any support act, it took a little longer to warm up the audience, but he did this expertly with tried-and-tested stories and ad-libbed opinions about pretty much any country in the world; including a superb bit about the peculiar softness of the Norwegian accent.

His physical expressions seem a little more cartoonish than I remember, more exaggerated and less real, but this is almost certainly a necessity that arises from playing bigger venues: at a theatre gig, without the big-screen close-ups you get at arenas, Jim Carrey would probably come over as a master of minimalism when you’re sat way back in the cheaper seats. And in any case, some apparent loss in authenticity is soon forgotten as Campbell manages to bring the whole crowd with him on long, perfectly structured anecdotes.

For sure, the sheer force of his personality and his skill in evoking moments of confusion and mayhem through perfectly judged bits of mime and microphone manipulation are enough to bring about that sense of hysteria you get at the best stand-up performances. It’s only in retrospect you realise how carefully honed and interwoven his stories are, each one reaching a series of mini-climaxes before culminating in a genuinely unexpected twist. Throughout them all – from a tale about fighting off muggers in Brussels to the evening’s crowning routine about a gruelling and life-changing mountain climb – Campbell manages to conjure up the thoroughly likeable persona of a kindly, open-hearted Canadian who sometimes just can’t stop the wild and bemused “moose-fucker” within from taking over.

There’s very little introspection: the closest he gets is the realisation that his dad, who is once thought an embarrassment, was actually the kind of admirable man who liked to “pimp up a chainsaw”. Instead Campbell seems totally outward-looking: in awe of the world, of travel, of strange people and places. His reminiscences about being a partying, drug-taking teenager are not occasions for soul-searching but joyous accounts told with an air of bemusement, as if they happened to someone else.

The obvious comparison is Billy Connolly: not least because he has the same crazed-Jesus look of a man you would both love, and be terrified of, if you met them in a bar. The Canadian is not quite as free-wheeling and his reliance on not-always-successful audience interaction at the outset of the evening may indicate that his well of anecdotes is not yet quite so deep. But this show proved that Campbell gets better with age and his new status of playing to larger venues is not just an earned right, but his natural home.

4 stars

Review written by Pete Kelly


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