“I thought it was going to be classier than this, didn’t you?” says Stephen Merchant, breaking off from mimed cunniling us to address his audience. To be honest, I don’t think many of the sell-out crowd at Oxford’s New Theatre knew what to expect from The Office and Extras co-creator’s first nationwide stand-up tour, ’Hello Ladies’, but the sheer amount of simulated coitus was something few could have predicted. For a man who has chiefly made his name behind a computer keyboard as a writer, or behind a microphone on the record-breaking Ricky Gervais podcast, rather than in front of the television cameras or on stage, the physicality of the show in general was perhaps surprising; although when you consider Merchant’s 6’7” stature you can imagine the opportunities available.
Without wishing to lazily trot out the tired old physical descriptions – his Wikipedia page has a section devoted to Appearance, ‘a source of humour and teasing throughout his life’ – watching the man affectionately, yet repeatedly, described by his writing partner (referred to by Merchant simply as You Know Who) as ‘a big lanky goggle-eyed freak’, posing glamour-style for photographs, dancing with long-limbed abandon, and seducing a microphone stand, is a visual treat that few other comics can provide. Yet there is far more to Merchant’s act than gangly clowning. While using the powers of his height to their best ability, he is also at the height of his powers as a writer. Feigned nervousness at the start of the show – “It looks easy on the telly, doesn’t it?” – belies a well-crafted and mature stand-up act. The show centres on Merchant’s ‘search for a wife’ and fame’s let-down as love-life panacea. Confessional vignettes of thwarted love and incredulous observations are brought together with charming sincerity, while sporadic outbursts of faux-arrogance and BAFTA-wielding prevent the audience response from devolving into actual pity.
The great comedians have always been outsider figures, a status often compromised by proximity to success. With Merchant, however, there is no need for affectation; you feel he has always been, toa great extent can’t help but be, the outsider, quite literally standing out from the crowd and witha literally unique viewpoint. Perhaps paradoxically it is his struggle to be accepted, on a personal level, despite the huge success he has achieved, in which the pathos and comedy lie. ‘Hello Ladies’continues until the end of the year, taking in a six-night run at the Hammersmith Apollo and finishing in New York just before Christmas, and it is worth going to see a show that places Merchant among the best working stand-ups today, (forgive me:) head and shoulders above the competition.