From Master of None to Inside Amy Schumer, Aparna Nancherla arrives in the UK with a trail of hip comedy credits in her wake and her show doesn’t stint on witty wisecracks and tart asides. If her UK debut doesn’t make the splash her pedigree promised, it’s because Nancherla is a weaker performer than she is a writer, and because her hour-long show feels like several short sets strung together, never stretching its wings to fill a larger format.
It doesn’t help that she puts herself on the back foot from the off: her opening line warns us her performance might be affected by jet lag. That is of a piece with Nancherla’s self-deprecating style: a sizeable chunk of the material deals with her introversion – why she never removes her coat at parties, say – and her lack of get-up-and-go. Some people have a “lust for life”, she tells us, setting up a choice joke about her own, less zealous relationship with existence.
There’s no reason why great comedy can’t derive from social anxiety, as acts from Woody Allen to Lee Evans have proved. Nancherla is certainly funny on the subject. One routine describes the moment her disastrous first date “became an Amazon algorithm: ‘You might also not like …’” Another, after recounting the cat-calls she receives on the streets of New York, reimagines that city as a reality TV show called So You Think You Can Exist?. But her unease is as much hindrance as comic opportunity here: the diminutive Nancherla avoids eye contact and resists any meaningful communication with her audience. This demeanour doesn’t stop her from dealing well with one heckler, but elsewhere Nancherla’s rabbit-in-headlights edge deprives us of a sense of spontaneity.
But if her show always feels rigidly on-script, it’s a good script – littered with droll remarks about women’s magazines and online listicles – albeit one lacking an overarching argument or much tonal variety. The final third takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation, featuring emojis, odd news headlines and texts from Nancherla’s mum. It is enlivened by Nancherla’s barbed commentary, but it feels like a cheat: we’ve come to see her material, not material cribbed from the internet.
It adds up to a diverting hour, characterised by fine writing and a likably mordant personality. But it’s diffuse and hamstrung by Nancherla’s shyness – a fine subject for a comedian, but not so effective as a style.
- At Soho theatre, London, until 10 June. Box office: 020-7478 0100.