Russell Brand: Messiah Complex – review

Birmingham Symphony Hall
Russell Brand brings a biblical flood of ideas to his finely balanced standup show

It's hard to think of many people better placed to talk about the cult of personality in the modern age than Russell Brand. He's been elevated to Hollywood star and beloved bad boy of the gossip magazines, and it's not just young women screaming and trampling over one another to touch him: broadsheets and current affairs programmes can't get enough of his pronouncements either. When thousands, even millions, hang on your every word, it can go to your head, he explains, as he attempts in this show to claim his place along some of history's other popular heroes – Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus Christ.

Brand's tabloid antics and former drug addiction frequently eclipse the fact that he is a very sharp standup and a hugely engaging live performer. He swaggers on stage with the fanfare of a rock legend, all tight jeans, ripped shirt and glossy hair, and descends into the audience to be groped and drooled over while dispensing grooming tips and gentle mockery.

But this is a brief interlude, like a politician shaking hands before the hustings. Brand has something to say and his delivery is so high-octane and slick it would be impossible for a heckler to get a word in.

His twin themes are the way celebrity affects those it raises up and exposing the failures of his four chosen heroes, in the process of proving that he is a bit like them. Neither is particularly new: David Baddiel's recent Edinburgh show, Fame, did the former, and Richard Herring was comparing himself to Jesus back in his 2001 show Christ on a Bike. But Brand brings his own perspective to bear, from the frontline. He's unapologetic about his excesses and he's not attacking the concept of celebrity; "Why would I attack a lifestyle that lifted me out of poverty and dropped me into a giant tumble-dryer of tits and money?"

But he's asking us to look closely at those we put on pedestals, because you can't trust presentation. Tyranny, he says, is "the deliberate removal of nuance", such as the time he told Rolling Stone magazine he thought all young musicians should take heroin. This is a show stuffed full of ideas, to the point where it feels as if Brand is a little anxious about having put in so much thought-provoking material and needs to soften it with a lot of sex jokes in case people get restless.

He scatters references to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, half-apologising for the "clever stuff", though most of his points return neatly to anecdotes about himself. But there's an appealing self-deprecation to his vanity – in all the stories, he comes off looking like an idiot – and here narcissism is in the service of bigger ideas.

He tells us it would take $40bn to eradicate global poverty – nothing compared to the $50tn held by the richest corporations. "That's the equivalent of refusing a starving boy 40p when you've got £500 in your pocket." There's a ferocity in lines such as these, which he balances with a lot of orgasm impressions and sly digs about marriage ("Marriage and prison are quite similar, in that they're both institutions designed to inhibit personal freedom. But there's a lot more anal sex in one of them… ")

It's quite an achievement to have created a show that manages to be crowd-pleasing and provocative at the same time, and I hope he continues in this vein. For all his showing-off, Brand is using his influence to spread a message – a bit like the men he wants to emulate: "Choose your heroes carefully or the culture will choose them for you."


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Russell Brand: Messiah Complex – review

Comic gets the balance right between imparting hippie-leftie wisdom and sending himself up, writes Brian Logan

Brian Logan

09, Oct, 2013 @12:00 AM

Article image
Russell Brand undone by Messiah Complex complications
Matt Trueman: Comedian's tour of Middle Eastern mosques and synagogues has been cancelled after threats against his safety

Matt Trueman

21, Jun, 2013 @11:52 AM

Article image
Russell Brand review – piety, politics and parenting
The spiritual comedian’s lofty aspirations make way for funny riffs on fatherhood and lockdown in a self-ridiculing set

Brian Logan

20, Sep, 2021 @11:48 AM

Article image
Russell Brand: My Life by William Shakespeare review – self-help from the Bard
Narrating his life via sonnets and speeches, the motormouth comic delivers a show that is both egotistical and endearing

Brian Logan

21, Nov, 2018 @2:45 PM

Article image
Russell Brand – Exposed review: good to have him back in a celebration of oddity
Back from comedic and political hibernation, swaggering as always but a little less potent in new show Exposed

Brian Logan

06, Nov, 2016 @11:49 PM

Article image
Brand: A Second Coming review – the insufferable messiah returns
Dig! director Ondi Timoner turns in a more down-and-dirty documentary account of the standup’s attempts to spark world revolution

Mark Kermode Observer film critic

25, Oct, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Russell Brand v the Sun: war of words hots up

Brian Logan: Red-top brands comedian a hypocrite, Jack Dee criticises Crewe and Jimmy Carr tells Ross Noble not to knock Mock the Week

Brian Logan

03, Dec, 2013 @3:17 PM

Article image
Russell Brand: ‘I want to address the alienation and despair’
Power to the people is Russell Brand’s new manifesto. He tells Simon Hattenstone why he’s ‘ready to die for this’

Simon Hattenstone

11, Oct, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
Russell Brand to tour mosques and synagogues with new comedy show

Brian Logan: Controversial comic's new show will dissect the lives of religious figures. Plus: Michael Barrymore talks frankly about losing everything and the rape-in-comedy debate rumbles on

Brian Logan

11, Jun, 2013 @3:52 PM

Article image
Has Russell got the right Brand of humour for US television?

Brian Logan: Russell Brand's new TV show Brand X fails to wow the US critics, while Eddie Izzard treats LA to a French-speaking gig

Brian Logan

03, Jul, 2012 @4:37 PM