Simon Amstell review – perky, pained, anxious, ironic, wise – and funny

Leicester Square theatre, London
From his long process, after coming out, of self-acceptance to his newfound romantic happiness, this is classic, neurotic, angst-ridden Amstell

If there were any doubts that romantic bliss might have dulled Simon Amstell’s neurotic edge, they’re allayed in the opening seconds of the first night of his new tour. He may be six years into a relationship, have just published his first book and made a splash with the recent TV mockumentary Carnage. But he still can’t help telling us – it’s the first thing he says – how undermined he feels by a single empty seat on the front row. Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme angst-ridden Amstell, laying bare his overthought emotional life in the name of our entertainment.

The new show is called What Is This?, with emphasis firmly on the middle word. The “this” is life, that mysterious thing Amstell can’t bring himself to just get on with like everyone else. After all: why? OK, so he’s not as riddled with self-loathing as he once was. Back then, he could barely get out of bed; now, “I get out of bed, but I don’t know why I’ve done it.” Existential angst, or wealthy man’s privilege? A bit of both. Amstell doesn’t remotely apologise for being famous – one droll gag finds him repaying his mum for the use of her womb by introducing her to Derren Brown. But it’s clear celebrity is just one more circle of alienation for a man whose every social interaction feels like an out-of-body experience.

It’s heartwarming to hear of his newfound happiness: he’s touching about the relationship here, as he traces his experience of learning to love and be loved. But, in the same way that he once addressed unhappiness with bewildered detachment, so, too, contentment is just something else to observe and analyse. That’s the stuff of the show’s final third, as Amstell shares his own and his partner’s unconventional rules on fidelity, and how several recent party experiences have scrambled his boundaries, and his sense of how lustily we all ought to be handling one another.

But most of What Is This? is retrospective. For the first time, Amstell tells his coming out story on stage – not only the telling-the-parents moment, but the several-year process of self-acceptance that preceded (and followed) it. Casting himself as comically naive and vulnerable, even in the early years of his celebrity, he recounts two experimental solo trips – to Paris, aged 18, then Miami at 21 – both tending to the irresistible conclusion: “Oh yes: gay.” But his family try to talk – or shock – him out of it, and their disapproval, internalised, proves hard to live down.

The middle section describes how he does so, as therapy and bitter experience teach Amstell that his dad isn’t an ogre, but “just a man, who doesn’t know what he is doing”. I’d have enjoyed this routine more if I hadn’t read it word for word in the previous weekend’s Guardian. Amstell starts the show with a joke about the deal he struck to publish transcripts of his live comedy. “Who for?,” he marvels, to which (now I know it includes new material as well as old) I can volunteer the answer: anyone who’d just love to know all the punchlines before they watch Amstell’s brand new show.

But it takes more than spoilers to spoil What is This?: a lovely hour that strikes a beautiful balance between perky and pained, anxious and ironic. Occasionally, justifying a laugh-free moment, he’ll claim he’s not trying to be funny, just wise. The best of his material – and there’s a real sense, early in the tour, that Amstell is enjoying delivering it – manages to be both at the same time.


Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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