There’s a pleasure to watching Frank Skinner that you don’t get with many other comics: you can approach it as a sort of geological survey of the man on stage, as if he were a slab of sedimentary rock in a loose-fitting suit.
It’s all there. The working-class boy who grew up in Birmingham, the comic forged in the fires of the pub/club circuit, the football fanatic who can’t resist a (non-misogynist) knob gag. That’s all leavened by late-era Skinner, who is more defined by a gentle wisdom, and a range of knowledge that means he can stumble across seemingly any obscure subject when chatting with the audience and know a bit about it (tonight’s surprise specialist subject: wrestling moves). And when he jokes about how big his house is, he has the charm to get away with it. He is truly a man of layers.
His new set, Showbiz, feels like hanging out with him in a bar. This is both a good and bad thing – Skinner is warm, impeccable company and his way with a punchline is still masterful. It also means the show feels insubstantial, that it doesn’t add up to much, even if I did laugh a lot. The jokes are scattergun, which is fine for a while but feels disposable after 90 minutes. I don’t think it’s asking too much of a gagsmith to alight on a subject for a little while, to get their teeth into it. I think the longest Skinner does this is his story about going “tackle-out” too early in a public toilet.
Still, there are numerous brilliant moments – jokes about Prince Andrew’s inability to lie, the joys of doing the conga, and why The Krankies do cruise ships. The subject of his age comes up more than any other: he is gloriously unashamed to talk about his waning sex drive. A section towards the end about celebrities feels tacked on to justify the show title, although his impression of hearing a neighbour playing Ella Fitzgerald records is an unlikely hit.
One of Skinner’s more underrated skills is his incongruous similes, which verge on the poetic. His bad shoulder turns his body shape into an Olympic podium. Correcting his “tackle out” error, he proceeds to the urinal with a hand underneath his member “like a cat on a cushion”. It’s a comic gift, no doubt. And when he goes crude – like his twist on Call the Midwife – he makes sure it has full impact.
It may feel a bit like a lap of honour – perhaps unsurprising after decades in the biz – but an evening in Skinner’s company is still a delight.
At the Garrick theatre, London, until 15 February.