On Friday 10th December 1993, Rob Newman (with David Baddiel, of all people) was the first comedy act to play Wembley Arena, a 12,000-capacity venue normally associated with rock concerts, at one of the largest comedy gigs in history. He was 29 at the time, and very much the funny one in the country’s biggest comedy double act and he absolutely knocked it out of the park. Last night, nearly quarter of a century later, he performed a work-in-progress version of his forthcoming show The History of Western Philosophy at Norwich Arts Centre, a tiny 120-seater venue. There were many empty seats.
The previous week, fellow comic Michael McIntyre – also performing a work-in-progress show – had sold out the Norwich Playhouse, a considerably larger venue just around the corner, in minutes. It’s clear Rob is no longer at the top of the comedy tree. But then, fiercely intelligent with a burning desire to read well-researched academic papers and then share his new-found knowledge – with comedy consequences, of course – Rob is not at all like McIntyre.
Maybe his new style of comedy just isn’t trendy. A long way from his alternative teen idol look of the 1990s, he now resembles a dishevelled and eccentric history professor, with his tweed jacket and crooked bow tie. In fact, his new show – with its educational content and clear formal structure – is more like a comedic university lecture than a traditional stand up gig. But that’s clearly how the ex-rock star of comedy rolls nowadays.
Of course, all this change would be fine – comedians, like any other artists, often do develop and change with time – if the actual show was any good… but unfortunately, that’s where last night fell down. Utterly.
For a kick-off, the show was fatally under-rehearsed. I appreciate that the show was advertised as a “work in progress”, and therefore it’s expected to be a bit rough around the edges, but it was like he’d never performed it at all before, and had thrown it together the previous evening, like some schoolboy who had been beavering away on the bus to school completing homework he had to hand in first lesson. I’m not sure if this lack of preparation was arrogance on Rob’s part, or a contempt for the paying audience (“you are so far up the A11, it doesn’t matter what you think”, he joked at one stage) – but neither seems likely, as I’ve always thought he was a nice guy.
What made matters worse was his extreme nervousness. This is a guy who had previously commanded the attention of a packed venue a hundred times larger than the Norwich Arts Centre; and yet here he was totally bereft of comic energy. He was stuttering, lost and at times totally incoherent. It was like he had no confidence in his material. Comedians should always have confidence in their material, however weak it might be. Just ask Michael McIntyre.
To be fair, the second half was marginally better; but whether this was because he felt more comfortable with the audience, or he was performing material he knew better, it was difficult to tell. But then, even there, there were issues: the better-performed bits were also familiar to his fans, and therefore not as funny as they should be, as many people had heard the jokes before. The show – advertised as “inspired” by his recent Radio 4 show – was at best, a best-of cut-and-paste job of highlights from his radio series, stuck together with untested linking material of dubious comedy value.
What might surprise you from reading this review is this: I like Rob Newman. I think he’s clever, funny and charming – an absolute triple threat – which made his performance at Norwich so bitterly disappointing. I know for an absolute fact that he can do better – and I’m also sure he will definitely do better, later in the run, as his confidence in the new material grows.
Perhaps the moral of this review is “don’t go to the first night of a ‘work in progress’ show”. But maybe – just maybe – someone needs to sit Rob down in a high-backed leather armchair, apply some ‘old man’ make-up to his face, and put on a video of his Wembley Arena show. You see that Rob Newman. That’s you, that is.