Acaster’s peaked. Again
One of the odd things about James Acaster’s rise as a standup is that he’s achieved it while remaining, shall we say, unavailable. Ever since his 2011 debut, his shows have existed in a sort of heightened reality that has felt both familiar and escapist, and along the way we’ve learned almost nothing about him.
These shows have involved some pretty elaborate scaffolding, too, to keep the world at arm’s length. In 2014’s Recognise he cast himself as undercover cop Pat Springleaf, who was him but also wasn’t him; in 2016’s Reset he looked at the concept of fresh starts, and avoided applying it to his own life for as long as possible; while 2013’s Lawnmower appeared to be devoted to clearing the name of Yoko Ono, obviously. Sometimes a chink of truth made it through, usually at the end of these shows, when his affected persona cracked and he revealed what was really on his mind – a break-up, or a disaffection with choosing a life as a standup. From down in the stalls, those moments always look like a relief.
Well anyway at some point over the last few years a bolt has come loose in that scaffolding, and we are now presented with Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, the original brickwork behind the facade. His standoffish-ness is still in place, but crucially Acaster is laying everything out for all to see – his two big break-ups, getting dumped by his agent, a pretty shocking therapy experience, and the mental toll this has taken – and almost all of this took place in 2017.
First things first, a straight confessional this is not. Comedy shows on personal trauma are commonplace now, but the wiring in Acaster’s comic brain doesn’t allow him to produce anything generic – witness the story of his agent bust-up, which occurred after Acaster appeared on Sunday Brunch and was a little loose-lipped with Tim Lovejoy (he’s only human). He gives the routine a clever lift by telling it from his agent’s point of view – his therapist might say this is deflectionary, but comedically it’s brilliant, as we navigate this story through the various prisms of him pretending to be someone else who, apparently, had a jaundiced view of him. Not only does this technique lead him to some very funny places, it stretches us too, which is always nice.
It should also be said that Acaster takes a massive run-up to this personal stuff. In the first half he cuts a world-weary figure, comparing the brutal, hyperconnected world of 2017 to the naive days of 1999, when the internet was new and hopeful, and when Family Acaster went on holiday to France to watch a lunar eclipse – something that turned out to be a gratifying, communal event among strangers. He manages to convey the paradox of how, today, we feel less connected than we did previously, without lapsing into a bog-standard whinge.
However the headlines from this show will be about one of his breakups, which involved his ex sodding off with a super-mega-star household name which you can Google elsewhere if you like. The reason this section is so funny though isn’t the thing itself, but his reaction to it: how he’s held it “in his back pocket” for so long as a comic; his ongoing incredulity at what happened; the way well-meaning restauranteurs accidentally remind him about it when he’s on holiday. It’s not a bitter routine at all – he toys with the idea of taking cheap pot shots at the happy couple, and sort of pretends to, but his heart isn’t in it.
A couple of personal highlights: a visual joke on menstrual cycles that is unique and perfect and I’m guessing calls upon his skills as a drummer to pull off. And his political metaphors continue to be as well-chosen and economic in their message as his “Brexit/tea bag” analogy. He’s now come round to the idea of a second Brexit vote, and sets the scene in a restaurant that can’t quite give him what he ordered. Plus his observation on people who might quibble about the difference between racism and xenophobia is a doozy.
It may be that, for Acaster, this is a breakthrough show on a personal level – the one where he finally feels comfortable enough to actually tell us his stories and show us his scars. If so, that will have been a risk for him, considering he broke through on a professional level with a bunch of shows that did the opposite. That risk has paid off though, because Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 proves beyond doubt that Acaster can talk about himself plainly and directly without showing fear, and without compromising on the laughs – if anything the more personal second half was funnier than the first.
If I were a comic watching this I’d be weeping with envy at seeing Acaster add another string to his bow. For everyone else, just sit back and enjoy a modern master at the top of his game.
Review by Paul Fleckney
• James Acaster will tour the UK with Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 from 9th September – 6th December 2019, see jamesacaster.com/gigs