No one zeroes in on the human comedy, the gulf dividing who we wish to be from who we actually are, quite like Simon Amstell. He clears the other stuff out of the way: it’s all about the fraught relationship between man and his interior monologue, all that shame, ego and self-consciousness getting in the way of the Zen Simon he aspires to become. It’s such a strong and identifiable comic voice, and one which, finally, only ever addresses one subject – so his new show Spirit Hole will feel familiar to fans of his work. But it still finds Amstell operating at a high level of self-analysis and comic skill, this time applied to the experience of turning 40, shedding the burden of shame, and experiencing broodiness for the first time.
That’s much to his own surprise, having assumed (in another sign of his age) that his homosexuality rendered parenting one of the few things he needn’t worry about. Entering his fifth decade, the ex-Popworld man is as anxious as ever, not least about that middle-aged milestone. He’s only able to see the flipside of compliments on his youthful looks, and everywhere observes a society terrified of old age and making a fetish of the young. Small wonder, then, that a midlife crisis propels Amstell to New York, hair dyed blond, to capitalise on his youth while he still can. Cue an undignified encounter in a hotel room, where – turned off, Amstell wonders, by his archaic use of the word “laptop”? – two young hunks run scared from this “thin, old man”.
This isn’t the only story our host can barely bring himself to tell us: his palpable mortification (authentic or otherwise) adds to the fun throughout. As does his self-delight: “Sometimes I can’t say the punchline,” he explains, “because I think it’s too funny.” Fair enough. There’s a lovely routine that finds Amstell, on the verge of peace with himself, rudely interrupted by an undermining voice in his head: “Why didn’t I write Hamilton?” – the funniness of which is greatly intensified by Amstell physically cowering from the question, like the frightened tenant of a haunted house. There’s a running joke elsewhere about how his gags aren’t relatable (the one about exploiting his fame to woo a barman, say). But this riff on the irritating ego – always there with a pin to burst those brief bubbles of contentment – what could be more relatable than that?
After all this free-associating angst, there are more discernible set-pieces in the show’s second half – such as the big-hitting sketch about the tyranny of masculinity, spoofing the difficulties advertisers have selling moisturiser to men. Two later routines find Amstell shedding inhibitions at an ayahuasca ceremony, and visiting a Berlin sex club. Both trade, by Amstell’s standards, in rudimentary sex-and-social-embarrassment comedy, but the former is better integrated into the show’s wider narrative of a man sloughing off his lifelong baggage of self-unease.
All this restless self-interrogation could get on one’s nerves – but never does here, because Amstell fashions it into such great gags. Which is a form of conquest over it – which in turn he seems to celebrate on stage. He may endlessly frustrate and disappoint himself away from the spotlight, but at least Amstell retains the perspective to find it funny – on stage at least, where he’s palpably having a great time. As indeed are his audience.
At Soho theatre, London, until 3 September. Then touring until 9 November.