With its Victorian lineage and Union Flag-waving associations, the Royal Albert Hall is, on paper, the perfect venue for Al Murray. After all, where better for his famous creation, his proudly traditional Little Englander the Pub Landlord, to fire off tirades of scepticism about everything from modern technology to the French?
Ever since he created the Landlord – hastily, backstage in Edinburgh, in 1994 – this character has evolved into live comedy’s most subversive and dependably hilarious tool for holding British insularity and small-mindedness up to ridicule.
Brexit is the event the Landlord must have been desperately praying for all his (fictional) life, a vote he’d see as endorsing every value he’s ever held dear. Quite apart from the venue, could Murray possibly have a finer opportunity to unleash his full comic arsenal?
Brilliantly entitled Let’s Go Backwards Together, and playing out against a huge, slyly fascistic photograph of himself, the show begins with the Landlord saluting us on this, “our 20th full Tuesday of actual British freedom”. If this is both characteristic, and super, the overall set turns out not to be vintage Murray.
On one hand, the Landlord’s desire to return to the values of the Fifties (not least, of course, because it wasn’t long since we’d given Germany a jolly god thrashing) makes a kind of sense as his reaction to Brexit. On the other, although he touches on it with that excellent “freedom” line, surely heads-down triumphalism would have made better sense, and been far funnier. A systematic endorsement of Brexit, with far more on some of the other countries involved and the leading players both then and since, might have made for a far more effective and character-driven broadside against both xenophobia and smug liberalism.
Although he touches entertainingly on Corbyn and May, you crave far more on them, as indeed you do on Murray’s marvellous but inevitably doomed standing last year against Nigel Farage for the seat of Thanet South – a wealth of comic gold waiting to be mined there, surely.
It all might have worked better, too, if the Landlord at least honoured his initial pledge to give us all “a pot to p*** in”. But, after this promise of a manifesto of sorts, the show rather careers around between observations on Muslims, Isil, transgenderism, and even flashing that are often surprisingly woolly in themselves and fail to add up to a satisfying whole. His occasional songs, although lively, don’t add that much, either.
If I’m being harsh on Murray, it is precisely because I admire him so much, and know just how astonishingly good he can be. In fairness, there are plenty of laughs to be had here: it would be grossly unfair not to mention the priceless anti-technological plane-crash routine, and above all the remarkably erudite set-piece that launches with Murray tremulously mentioning the “75 million Turks” who are now on their way to Britain and builds into what amounts to a top-to-bottom demolition of the noxious notion of ethnically pure “Britishness”.
But more such Zeitgeist-nailing passages are needed in a show that’s too long, too unfocused, too over-reliant on schtick, and which on Tuesday night was playing in a room that’s just too big. Certainly, Murray took magnificent control of the vast space, but his jovial, 6ft 3in, bullet-headed monster is so much more scarily compelling when towering over a smaller venue, besides which 30 minutes of opening audience repartee, however expertly handled, is still an awful lot.
Also, to judge by their approving “whoops”, large portions of the audience sadly might have been astonished, even dismayed to learn that Murray is actually a rather posh, Oxford-educated Europhile, and that his boorish xenophobia is all an act.
A far from bad pint, then – but not one poured with Murray’s usual finesse.
Touring until May 2017. Details: thepublandlord.com