A needless exhumation
The editor of this esteemed organ is renowned in comedy circles for being the cruelest of taskmasters – regularly sending his underpaid and undernourished reviewers to the darkest corners of London to watch the worst kind of BBC3-courting dross. He’s also infamous for snaffling up all the very best review tickets for himself.
So when it was suggested I might want to check out “this Mel Brooks thing”, I nearly punched myself in the face, in a mixture of uncertain delight and giddy confusion. For a moment, I thought I was off to the great man’s much-publicised one-off gig coming up in the West End later this month. But alas, no. That golden ticket was safely earmarked for he who must be obeyed, and I instead was off to The 2,000-Year-Old-Man at the JW3 Centre, a plush Jewish community centre in Finchley Road.
Actor and writer Kerry Shale has stitched together bits of one of Brooks’s most celebrated routines, which feature the (very) old man of the title being interviewed about his extraordinary time on earth. Taking sections from The 2,000-Year-Old Man recordings, Shale has created what is, in effect, an hour-long sketch. He plays the ancient interviewee, with Chris Neill in Carl Reiner’s inquisitor/straight man role.
This show should have been a doozy for me. While I’m not a Brooks anorak and hadn’t come across these sketches before, I’m a committed fan of his films. When I was about 12 years old, I thought the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles was the funniest thing in the world. Ever. I’m now 33 and about to have my first child, and I still think a load of cowboys sitting around eating baked beans and breaking wind is about as hilarious as comedy gets. Also, I’m Jew “ish” (non-practicing Jews on one side of the family) and a long-term, unrepentant fan of Newsnight Review, meaning I have a soft spot for Shale too, as he was a regular guest on that fine, fine programme.
Sadly though, The 2,000-Year-Old Man is not a success. It’s effectively a tribute show. Tribute acts can work well in music because although, for example, Barry’s White may not be the best Walrus of Love impersonator around (he’s the wrong colour for a start), at the least the tunes will see him through. Here, faith has been put in the quality of the gags carrying the show, but comedy is not as simple as that.
Shale puts a mighty amount of effort into playing the grizzled duffer, and he’s very good. He’s a strong physical performer and his timing’s excellent. There’s some great stuff about the how the old man was breast-fed for 200 years (“the happiest time of my life”) and plenty of fun to be had in his explanations for the origins of everyday words. This being Brooks, there are a load of zingy Jewish jokes for the home crowd to enjoy, too (“Was he ostracised? He was circumcised!”)
Yet, as the hour unfolds, proceedings drag. The sketch format is not designed to be stretched out like this. The jokes and rhythms become repetitive and, while Shale does admirable work, he just can’t make the material sing like Brooks did. Having watched back a number of the original 2,000-Year-Old-Man sketches, it’s clear that one of the keys to their success is the sense of chaos and danger that Brooks engenders. It’s the same in his performances in his films; that feeling that there’s a mad comic energy pouring out of him – that he is, to some extent, working on the fly.
This adaptation, on the other hand, feels too scripted and underpowered, badly missing Brooks’s freewheeling charisma. Perhaps Shale and co would have been better off leaving the 2,000-Year-Old Man to grow even older in peace. There is, after all, only one Mel Brooks. And if you want to see him performing in the West End, you’ll need to spend the equivalent of the national debt of Zimbabwe to secure a ticket. Or, you could start running your own moderately successful comedy website. Then a freebie will be yours for the taking.
Review by Will Gore
• The 2,000-Year-Old Man continues at JW3 on Finchley Road until 22 March (excluding Fridays), click here for details