Words by Helen Knott
Simon Amstell is in a good place, “I’ve been in a relationship now for six years”.
It’s almost a confession, coming from the king of angst-ridden, comedy-as-therapy; anyone who has seen his stand-up before will know depression and loneliness have been a major theme over the years. What happens now he’s happy?
In What Is This? Amstell maps his path to contentment. It’s a touching and funny journey, and coming to terms with being gay is a major factor.
From losing his virginity on a naïve trip to Paris, to the family crisis when he gets a boyfriend, before finally finding some kind of acceptance through attending a recent family Bat Mitzvah with his boyfriend. As he summarises: “It took me a long time to become comfortable with the idea of being loved.”
This isn’t the Simon Amstell who used to strike fear into the hearts of Never Mind the Buzzcocks guests. Even his errant father, so often the target of his anger, is forgiven – his misdemeanors dismissed as the consequences of emotional incompetence rather than malice. In fact, it’s often Amstell himself who is set up as the object of ridicule. Offering pseudo-therapy to help friends, attempting a single-handed and ill-advised feminist intervention at a Native American retreat in Norfolk; he is full of “wise” words, all learnt from his therapist.
This self-awareness of his capacity for self-aggrandising behavior stops a show that occasionally verges on being preachy, from turning into a full-blown lecture. Amstell explains that his new book, Help, features a transcript of the show (“I don’t even know who for. People who don’t like hearing stand-up out loud..?”) and at times tonight Amstell’s stand up routine feel like he’s reciting passages from a book, especially with his low-key style of delivery. But it makes for a tight, carefully scripted performance. Every word is precise. Crucially, it’s consistently very funny.
The final third of the show explores some of the challenges of being in a long-term relationship, raising questions around fidelity and morality. Stories of drug use and orgies could seem off-puttingly hedonistic, but, when told with Amstell’s ever-present, wide-eyed innocence, are actually rather charming. Like much of the audience, I’ve grown up with Simon Amstell and I’m rooting for him. And as he says to preemptively defend himself: “Where else will you hear something like that?”
What Is This? is a mature, confident show, with Simon Amstell seemingly more comfortable in his own skin than ever before. It’s still recognisably Amstell, just more mellow and more compassionate. Happiness suits him.
For more on Simon Amstell, visit www.simonamstell.com
For more form the Birmingham Comedy Festival 2017, including a full programme of events and online ticket sales, visit www.bhamcomfest.co.uk
For more from both the Town and Symphony Halls, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.thsh.co.uk