Grand Theatre Arts Wing, Swansea
‘So, a lot has changed since I invented alternative comedy,’ says Alexei Sayle, his tone only mildly facetious. A ripple of approval sweeps through the room. His bald head glistens in the light as he paces the stage, gesticulating with a manic fervour. The energy in the room is palpable. It’s a small room, seating around two hundred people; and is only sparely designed. It is a room that seems to belie the stature of one that you’d think entitled to such a statement; but he fills it nonetheless. He is the proverbial firebrand. The angry young man coupled with the ribald, anarchic manner were typical of his act in the 1980s. His stand-up was, and is, equal parts vitriol and absurdity; and if it appears that he says nothing particularly fresh or original, it is worth noting that much of what left-leaning comedians are saying today, he said first. So little has the world changed, he jokes, that rather than write new material, he should’ve just changed the names in his act and it would be just as salient.
Alexei Sayle is half-way through a two month jaunt around the UK. His first for a decade and a half. It is only a pre-tour, a testing ground for new material, with a view to taking on a full-scale tour in 2013 when he will likely fill the thousand or so seats of the main theatre of the Grand. Time hasn’t mellowed him. He greets us dressed in modest black, rolling his arms and bowing in parody; lapping up the adulation as you’d expect from one absent from the glare of the stage-light for so long. He is part Billy Bragg, part Spike Milligan; all held together by the appearance of an angry, socialist Santa Claus; and nothing is sacred. He is often distressed by humanity, and the way it manipulates the world to its own ends, and he provides a welcome note of common sense – a blunt realism that lifts the veil of glamour that so often shrouds modern life. He meditates on the role of comedy today, the legacy of which amounts to little more than the panel show, which, as Sayle puts it, simply serves to rehabilitate the careers of disgraced public figures: ‘If Joseph Goebbels were alive today, he’d be hosting Have I Got News For You.’ Such barbs are representative of Sayle’s acerbic side. He doesn’t do jokes, his style is anecdotal and observational, he digresses like a child who can’t hold his own attention for long enough to make his point. The comedy is in the delivery.
He is part Billy Bragg, part Spike Milligan; all held together by the appearance of an angry, socialist Santa Claus; and nothing is sacred.
Tonight, though, there is one punch-line to be had. It isn’t delivered by Sayle, but by his wife. It begins with his bewilderment as to why he was ranked eighteenth by Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comics of 2007. He believes that this is because no-one has ever seen him perform, and to go on tour is tantamount to career suicide; then people will realise that he has no jokes: ‘It is um, uh… what do you call it Linda?’ She bellows from behind the curtain, ‘Diluting the legacy!’ There is the only input by or reference to Linda, she is here, then gone just as quickly – a disembodied voice, like a ghost in the wind – and it is the most memorable moment of the evening.
Sayle’s act is rough around the edges, the seams are discernible, shall we say, but he is sharp as he ever was in his heyday – volatile, cynical, misanthropic and hilarious. He provides a sensible, if weary, counter-point to a world sometimes so lacking in compassion and rational thought, and it is invigorating to have somebody to tell us just how it is. You’d do well to see him in 2013.