Alexei Sayle review – a blizzard of rage and gloriously biting wit

Epstein theatre, Liverpool
Touring for the first time in seven years, it’s clear that the standup veteran hasn’t lost any of his sharp humour

‘As Emperor Hirohito said after the Hiroshima bomb …” Is there a comedian anywhere who can stamp their identity on a standup show quicker – and with more authority – than Alexei Sayle? He’s 67 now, and hasn’t toured for seven years, but as soon as he spits out these unlikely first words, it’s clear that absence has not staled his infinite acrimony. This latest offering starts in a blizzard of political rage, directed at the result of December’s general election, media bias and – cue Sayle distilling his scorn for bien pensant opinion into a caper around the stage – the popularity of Rory Stewart.

Oof! It’s so bracing, this gust of righteous ire – even as it sweeps up Sayle’s hated Guardian in its wake. Of course, the intemperateness is part of the joke, as our host reduces himself to a wheezing near-wreck raving at Laura Kuenssberg, David Miliband and the “pernicious lie” of Jeremy Corbyn’s racism. When his grandparents fled antisemitism in tsarist Russia, Sayle tells us, any suggestion that they lacked a sense of irony (as per Corbyn’s infamous comment at a 2013 conference on Palestine) would have been very low down on their list of concerns.

It’s blistering stuff, that strikes an adroit balance between making his point and sending himself up. It can’t be sustained but the quality remains high as the politics cede to crowd-pleasing material on Liverpool and its foibles, and jokes about his advancing years. Even on those mild subjects, there remains such astringency to Sayle’s delivery, and so much relish for anything awkward, jagged or antithetical to complacent mainstream thinking.

Alexei Sayle.
Bracing … Alexei Sayle. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Those who saw his 2017 Edinburgh festival show will recognise the recurring motif about a Zen master on a Chinese mountain, dispensing gnomic wisdom and anti-Jack Whitehall sentiment. But most of this material is fresh and in some instances, bespoke to his home town crowd. He has the locals in raptures with anecdotes about Liverpool then and now, such as the ones about visiting a Greek restaurant in the 1970s (“We’ve run out of pitta. D’you want Hovis?”) and about anti-cockney graffiti at Lime Street station. He has always savoured the “needle” in Scouse humour, Sayle tells us. Small wonder: he is among its spikiest exponents.

Even when addressing that hoariest of standup topics, ageing, Sayle finds new angles. Scores of middle-aged male comics have routines about invasive medical procedures. Most trade in body comedy and social shame; only Sayle’s is a joke about trade unionism. Still on life as a sexagenarian, the erstwhile bovver boy ranges across daytime TV, travelling with a bus pass and a recent cruise up the Rhine, as he weighs up whether to keep chasing his showbiz dreams, or hang up his microphone for good.

Not the latter, I hope, his voice would be much missed. OK, so he’s digressive tonight: the material isn’t particularly focused, even if his manner maintains a vice-like grip on our attention. And some of the gags are beneath him; Michael McIntyre is a soft target. But the breadth of his references (from Soviet communism to Nazi megastructures to his early career digging tunnels for the Jubilee line) and the bite of his wit, barely blunted after 40 years deployment, are gloriously intact. Long may he rage for our entertainment.

• At Epstein theatre, Liverpool, until 14 March. Then touring until 6 April.


Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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