I was in Waitrose the other day…” How’s that for the opening gambit of a comedy show? Jack Whitehall has fashioned a remarkable and lucrative career as a stand-up by saying the unsayable. Not about sex, but shopping.
His personality was forged in the leafy streets of south-west London and the aisles of its classier supermarkets. Rather than hiding his accent and concealing his roots, he has boldly made a virtue of sending up the snobbery and polite ineffectuality that go with being pampered and privately educated. Instead of making him a figure of hate and resentment, this honesty – combined with a scampish charm – has made him surprisingly loved.
Throw in the popularity of his self-penned BBC sitcom Bad Education, and the Channel 4 student comedy Fresh Meat – in both of which he plays variants on the same theme of being toffier and more out of touch than the rest – as well as the lad points he scores by being a team-regular on the sports quiz A League of Their Own, and small wonder At Large will stop off at Wembley Arena next month. It’s 20 years since John Prescott said “We’re all middle-class now” – here’s proof perhaps that he was more on the money than Labour likes to admit.
It was, to be fair, Michael McIntyre who ushered in the age of posh as an acceptable form of comedy shtick with his whirlwind of conformist angst but treading in his wake, Whitehall (28) has been the messiah of middle-class hysteria to McIntyre’s John the Baptist of bourgeois perturbation.
Those who don’t like anecdotes about braying Notting Hill types, minutiae about stag-dos or riffs with pay-offs like “I paid for my brioche and left” should steer clear. On opening night in Northampton, the elderly chap in front of me didn’t crack a smile once in the first half.
This was Michael Whitehall, Jack’s withering, oft-quoted theatrical agent dad (and his deadpan foil in their intermittent stage and screen chat-show Backchat). “I laughed inwardly,” Whitehall snr, 76, drolly informed a nearby pal in the interval.
Whether or not he and his wife Hilary were chuffed to watch their little darling recount, using explicit photos, the travails of being linked to a pornographic “dick-pic” (wrongly, he protests), who can say? Given that they’ve participated in a smutty video prelude, I assume they’re taking a modern parental pride in his ability to turn the flotsam and jetsam of 21st-century life into bankable material.
Did I learn anything much either about the wider world or Whitehall, in the course of 90 minutes? Not, really – a bad education, but as always there’s a fantastic schools-out feel about his approach, as he lends much physical exaggeration (and camp mannerisms worthy of Larry Grayson) to every trifling episode.
The most interesting segments concern his faintly abortive trip to America to try and make it as an actor. He doesn’t allude to his turn as a struggling stand-up in the critically derided Julia Roberts comedy film Mother’s Day but does relive his dismay at losing his solitary line in Frozen and flunking an audition for a film starring his old prep-school nemesis, the Twilight pin-up Robert Pattinson. He nearly went out of his mind in a Disney-themed hotel, he claims. More about that nadir would be welcome.
At some point, Whitehall’s self-caricaturing line in arrested development and ambling cluelessness is going to hit its past-its-sell-by date. But perhaps refusing to grow up, given the constant rounds of wearying news from the war-zone of adulthood, is just what he – and the rest of us – need right now. Cocooned in his bubble, he doesn’t mention Brexit once – I’ll scoff a brioche to that!
Touring until Feb 28. Tickets: jackwhitehall.com