Review – Simon Amstell, What is This?

What is this? It’s a very good comedy show indeed

Simon Amstell


I think this is what a happy Simon Amsell looks like. Or let’s maybe call it “relatively content” rather than “happy”. Gone are his routines about the perils and loneliness of single life, as he’s now in a healthy, loving relationship. Gone also is some of his angst about his dad, having taken the long road to accepting him for who he is, warts and all.

And yet What is This? feels a lot like his previous shows, i.e. a very public, very funny therapy session. He may have had some personal triumphs, but the neuroses and awkwardness that fuel his comedy are still very much in evidence. Sometimes he has to delve into his past for his routines – he recounts his slow, confused path to accepting he was gay, including a story about solo trip to Paris to visit a gay club. In the city of love, he lost his virginity by a canal. Back in the present day, his current relationship has been a bone of contention among certain members of his family. The story of his introducing his boyfriend to his relatives at a bah mitzvah is both funny and dispiriting – though he refuses to blame them for their conservatism. “All feelings are valid,” he says, one of the many bits of therapese he comes out with during the show (there are a fair few references to the “child self”).

That leads on to a standout section of the show, on marriage – what’s the point? is the thrust of his argument, though this seems to be his answer to everything. He may not be depressed any more, he says, but these days, instead of staying in bed all day, he gets out then wonders why he bothered. So much self-consciousness and nihilism in one man. No wonder he finds it hard to quieten the dark voices. One flat note is his routine on a visit to a Sweat Lodge – a sort of shamanic healing retreat – which lacks a comic backbone, though it might have just succumbed to first-night rustiness.

Where Amstell does seem to be liberated is in his consumption of sex and drugs. As you might expect, he approaches both with a head full of anxiety, but he tells us several stories of doing things (mainly MDMA), or people (mainly thin beautiful boys), or things to people that suggest he currently feels comfortable enough to let go a little. All these daily struggles, these minor yet significant victories – it sounds like a life exhaustingly lived, and yet it’s so brightly described. He is nothing if not a comic with pro chops, making sure his confessional always stays within the remit of a comedy show.

Amstell operates at the sort of level that most comics will never reach. And as life-updates go, What is This? is a fascinating and very funny new chapter from one of our most compelling and intelligent comedians.

4 stars
Review by Paul Fleckney

Click for dates and tickets for Simon Amstell’s UK tour of What is This?

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