Dominic Cavendish is perhaps best known, among comedians anyway, as the man who walked out of a Stewart Lee gig. Appalled by Lee’s apparent contempt for his audience, Cavendish asked why “the capacity crowd didn’t mutiny at this sardonic onslaught”. The reason, in the heads of most comedygoers, was that they understood the context of the contempt. To which Cavendish replied that he understood that his fans understood, but it was getting a bit tired. And anyone who has seen Stewart Lee’s website will know that the appalled outbursts of reviewers are simply collected and put on display like little trophies. It’s hard to win an argument with someone hellbent on self-deconstruction.
This year, perhaps to oil the waters, his colleague Mark Monahan went along to see Lee and found that there was “a great deal to enjoy”. So that’s alright then. Cavendish, meanwhile, has been pursuing his own line in contrarian needling by reviewing – indeed, celebrating – the most liberal-baiting comedians he could find: Andrew Lawrence, Geoff Norcott and Shazia Mirza.
It’s a relief that a reviewer has done justice to Norcott this year. By actually spelling out the jokes – quite a lot of them, possibly to the detriment of the show – Cavendish at least gives the lie to other reviewers such as Fest‘s resident communist Sean Bell who claimed that Norcott, despite admissions of Tory sympathies, had nothing controversial to say. These jokes “could easily bring death threats in the Twittersphere,” Cavendish assures us. And after the Lee debacle, he should know.
It’s clear that Andrew Lawrence is a bit of a critical battleground this year. From hate blurts that backhandedly validate him (Broadway Baby) to considered take-downs (Chortle) and contemptuous dismissals (Fest), most have attempted a sort of bomb-disposal review that won’t prove Lawrence right about the Liberal conspiracy. There’s no reason why the Torygraph should toe such a line, though, and Cavendish commends his bravery while excusing pretty much all his faults: “It’s as if we’d forgotten that comedians had licence to be honest, however ugly that might make them. Does that mean too few jokes? At times, yes.” He lets Mirza off too for having the courage not just to condemn Isis, but show evidence that the Prophet does too: “Given the bravery and urgency of the material, you’re inclined to overlook the fact that she loses momentum midway in by over-stating the same points.”
While we may disagree on which kind of bravery is most needed in comedy or the world, it’s clear that Cavendish is is genuinely concerned with this idea of ‘urgency’. He puts more emphasis on the message, and how different it is, than he is with the slickness, the surroundings or the technicalities. This is especially important when so many critics troll up to Edinburgh, watch Jack Whitehall and then complain that they didn’t see anything political/right-wing/controversial/daring. One criticism we might make of Cavendish as of all broadsheet reviewers: do you really see enough comedy to appreciate what is truly brave or different? You get the feeling that the shows Cavendish picked were selected in pursuit of a theme, and because he wanted to make his points without seeing any more than he had to.
Yet, when Cavendish is not having to explain why he went home early, he gives the show he’s looking at time to unfold on the page. At times this does mean a little too much punchline-spilling, but that’s a small loss to an hour-long show and worth it for an approach that, instead of having a point to prove, aims to prove its points with detailed reference to the original material. Not that Cavendish is always convincing: it seems sometimes that he was determined to come out in favour of these three shows before the lights even dimmed. But, the misjudged Stewart Lee debacle aside, there’s nothing particularly wrong with a reviewer with a point to make.