Charles Spencer reviews Lenny at the Queen's Theatre

The alarming thing when you listen to old Lenny Bruce records today is just how unshocking, and how unfunny, the legendary comedian now seems.

This was the drug-fuelled stand-up who reduced sophisticated audiences to helpless hysteria and who was constantly in trouble with the law on obscenity raps. Yet if he appeared on television today he wouldn't create a ripple of unease.

There is, however, no doubt that Bruce mapped out new comic terrain. In an age of bland conformity in the America of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Bruce defiantly tackled the thorny subjects of race, religion and sex. He was especially relentless in his pursuit of hypocrisy and, more than 30 years after his death, he is still venerated as the godfather of alternative comedy.

It looked a terrific idea to cast Eddie Izzard, in my view the finest British comic of his generation, as the man who showed the way to today's young stand-ups. But although Izzard gives an intermittently compelling performance, Peter Hall's production is a lumbering disappointment.

Much of the trouble stems from Julian Barry's script, first seen in 1971 and now showing its age as the author trudges through the clichés of showbiz biodrama. We begin at the moment of Bruce's death from a drugs overdose, aged 40 (like Elvis he died unheroically on the lavatory) before the action dissolves into a dream sequence in which the comedian tries to justify his allegedly obscene shows to a judge and a court of law.

Then there are the flashbacks, in which we meet the wife and aunt who brought Lenny up, the stripper he married and who turned him on to hard drugs, and follow his progress from sleazy dives to the big time, followed by the endless arrests that eventually destroyed his career.

Unfortunately there is depresssingly little vim in the writing, and all the supporting characters remain crude caricatures, though Elizabeth Berkley momentarily revived my flagging attention with a welcome strip routine as Lenny's wife.

With this agreeably gratuitous exception, however, all eyes are naturally on Izzard as Lenny, who also contrives to spend a remarkable amount of time without his clothes on. But though Izzard does his damnedest and bares his all for his art, he fails to make much of a case for the dead comedian.

There's a key moment in the script when Lenny Bruce confesses that all his humour is based on "destruction and despair". Izzard's own comic style, however, is based on an inherent niceness and dotty flights of surreal fantasy. As a result you never feel the actor is in tune with his character, and the frisson of danger that enlivened Bruce's performances is fatally absent.

For without the danger, the sense of a man recklessly breaking taboos, Lenny Bruce's material often seems hideously unamusing. There is something self-advertising about his social conscience, something hiply self-regarding about his attacks on "straight" middle America. Bruce certainly didn't deserve the martyrdom he received at the hands of the Establishment, but you can't help wishing that his confrontational routines were occasionally funny as well as right-on.

Izzard is a chunky chap, who lacks Bruce's lean and wired look, and his American accent is far from secure. He is intermittently touching in Bruce's drug-addled decline, but throughout the play I found myself wishing I was watching one of Izzard's own winning performances rather than his flawed impersonation of the far less entertaining Lenny.

All mouth and no trousers

Eddie Izzard's Lenny Bruce may bare all on stage, but we never quite get the naked truth, says JOHN PETER (Sunday Times)

Prophets and jokers are both necessary and dangerous, and you invariably get the ones you need, fear or fancy - depending on your moral stance and the state of your mental health. The key to both is subversion. Laughter and enlightenment both represent energies held in check by convention. Prophets and jokers unlock the secret chambers of repression and release energies that ruffle the guardians of smoothly run societies.

Was Lenny Bruce, né Leonard Schneider (1925-1966), one of them? This is one of the questions behind Julian Barry's play Lenny (Queen's Theatre), directed by Peter Hall.

Prophets with a sense of humour are rare. A joker exposes his own weaknesses as well as yours, but being a prophet is a serious business that cannot afford the compromise of self-exposure. Moses, John the Baptist and Mohammed never said anything to amuse their followers, and Jesus Christ, who began his earthly career as a prophet, is never described in the New Testament as laughing or even smiling. No, prophets with a sense of humour belong to more secular ages. Jonathan Swift was one. Voltaire was another. Friedrich Nietzsche was one, too, though Nietzsche's humour often feels like being tickled with the barrel of an assault rifle.

Lenny Bruce was a joker who probably aspired to the condition of prophet. I say probably because I do not think he ever quite got his act together. Barry's play is a collage: part life story, part nightclub act and part obscenity trial in which Lenny (if I may) defends himself before David Ryall's not unsympathetic but increasingly exasperated judge by presenting some of his notorious acts and arguing that they were not really offensive.

The play reminds me of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, a work Hall has directed more than once, in which another young man with a genius for upsetting people and conventions is confronted by a repressive society in a state of outrage. Both plays are short on rounded characters, and both work in short, jagged scenes that are put together not so much as an organic whole but as a theatrical demonstration: this, you see, the playwright says, is what happens when an irresistible subversive meets an immovable system. This is why, in the end, both plays are compulsively theatrical without being fully dramatic.

The difference, of course, is that Mozart also had a genius for something other than upsetting people, whereas with Lenny upsetting people was the aim - that and the public satisfaction of his own private obsessions. All prophets have obsessions, usually moral ones, which drive them almost with the force of biological urges. This is why prophets are necessarily cruel: biological urges have no knowledge of moral inhibitions.

Eddie Izzard's Lenny is short on cruelty. His body, which is frequently seen completely unclothed, is fleshier than Lenny's, who seems in his photographs to have been lean, almost whippet-like. (Prophets are seldom fleshy and never fat.) I never saw Lenny, and nobody under 55 is likely to have seen him, which means that for most of Izzard's audience the problem of physical likeness does not really arise. What is missing from his performance is the sense of cruelty, towards himself as well as others: the dark flower of an obsession that seems to have been crucial to Lenny's personality, public and private. There is a sophisticated geniality about Izzard, a beady-eyed generosity towards his victims, which needs to be suppressed. I think Lenny was scary: Izzard can be driven, almost manic, but never scary.

Partly, all this is Barry's fault. The text does not give Izzard and his director enough continuity to work through. Lenny has virtually no private self. His marriage and divorce, his relationship to his family, are briskly sketched in, purely functional like illustrations to a DIY booklet. To talk always about "them", somebody tells Lenny, "is rather paranoid" - but the writing gives no hint of the self-destructive poison of paranoia, hardly even of anxiety. Lenny's language was scabrous, filthy, full of disgust and self-disgust: here it is almost tame. Also, the play is too laid-back and long: 10 minutes could easily be cut from each half.

William Dudley's set consists of large sliding glass panels and mirrors that function as both nightclubs and courtrooms: the sort of places where you become dangerously transparent and defensive, where you observe both others and yourself and are observed by others in turn. Some of the characters playing legal parts wear half-masks: I can't think why. It does not add anything to the play or highlight anything in it; it is simply a tired, old-fashioned device that went out with the alienation effect, socialism and free school milk.

Where the production becomes really gripping is in Lenny's great set pieces of moral indignation cunningly disguised as outrageous humour. Here, Izzard, the master stand-up comedian, comes triumphantly into his own. The great compulsive broadsides against sexual and religious hypocrisy cascade from him like streams of gourmet poison, great glittering riffs of black laughter and fury. What English stand-up comedy I have seen, including Izzard's own, usually has a strong element of the conspiratorial: the entertainer knows exactly how far he can go and still be loved. Max Miller is the paragon of this genre. (Lady on the tube: "Is this Cockfosters?" "No, madam, the name is Miller.") There are only a few thrilling moments in this show when Izzard stops being the entertainer and becomes what Lenny was: an obscene, liberating enemy of public morality, the prophet as joker.

Lenny worked in that dangerous strip of land, prickling with moral antipersonnel mines, between actions and the words you use to describe them. Why exactly is it an offence to use the word "cocksucker" in public? According to the rules of public morality that accused Lenny of obscenity, it is offensive because it offends people, so there. In this way, silence acquits, just as certain words can be used for purposes of sanitation. This is not only a sexual matter. The Nazis called Jews vermin, but the actual extermination programme was politely called The Final Solution. Its successor today is ethnic cleansing. In sexual morality, too, things have not changed that much since Boccaccio, one of whose narrators in the Decameron remarks that women like to hold in their hands what they are ashamed to name. In Shaftesbury Avenue we are all very liberated, but how acceptable would this play be in Grantham, say, or Berwick-on-Tweed, or any Irish town outside Dublin? In the early 1960s, Lenny was refused entry into Britain by the Home Office because he was "an undesirable alien", and from the Home Office's point of view, this was entirely reasonable. Of course Lenny was undesirable. Today's Home Office does things differently: after all, they admitted Augusto Pinochet. But quite a few town councils up and down the land would still ban Lenny if they had the power and if there were a second coming.

Being a prophet, though, with or without jokes, can be a thankless business. Swift and Nietzsche both went insane, perhaps partly because the liberties they craved and argued for, social and political in Swift's case, intellectual and spiritual in Nietzsche's, were finally out of reach. And perhaps Lenny's increasing drug addiction and his wretched death from a morphine overdose, too, were a sign and an admission of defeat. We still do not quite know what freedom is. Lenny's case is not proven either way.*

The Big Play by Benedict Nightingale (The Times/Aug. 21, 1999)

THERE IS plenty wrong with Peter Hall's revival of Julian Barry's play about the late, great Lenny Bruce, and, with Eddie Izzard (above, with Elizabeth Berkley) in the lead, there's also a lot that's utterly right. Some have claimed that Izzard's portrayal of the American comedian's life isn't abrasive enough. Those, however, who saw Bruce in action will know that Izzard has caught the essence of a man who was impishly subversive in the early years and raddled and beaten as he succumbed to dope, arrests, court cases, bankruptcy and premature death in 1966. Watch Izzard's Bruce slope up to the mic and hold forth about that secret gay, the Lone Ranger, or about the horny feelings that overtake a maimed accident victim as he sees a nurse amid the corpses. You know that Izzard is bringing skill, charisma and even moral depth to Bruce's attacks on repression and hypocrisy.

The King of Comedy

As he prepares West End stage, Eddie Izzard tells BRYAN APPLEYARD why the American firebrand remains the 'godfather of alternative stand-up' Stand up and be counted: Eddie Izzard as Lenny Bruce. Grooming by Patti Harrison, photograph by Jason Bell

Eddie Izzard was born in Yemen to English parents; Lenny Bruce was a New York Jew. Izzard is a transvestite; Bruce was not. Izzard is nice; Bruce was not. Izzard likes to look on the bright side; Bruce did not. Izzard is a surrealist; Bruce was a satirist.

It would be hard to find two people with less in common, except for one thing: Izzard is the finest stand-up comic of his day, and so was Bruce. Which is why Sir Peter Hall's decision to cast Izzard as Bruce in his new production of Julian Barry's play Lenny is, in spite of everything, a brave and honourable act. It is a statement that, across the generations, the uniquely weird, high-pressure art of stand-up unites more than it divides. Izzard - the stocky, languid embodiment of a fine and exotic English whimsy - can, indeed, become Bruce - the thin, nervy expression of Jewish fatalism and anger.

Izzard wanted the part badly. "I heard it was being done and I knew this was the part I'd been looking for. It brought together drama and comedy. I talked to a bunch of people, I had to get to Peter Hall. I knew how to bullshit my way through. I said: 'I can do this, let me do it.' And he said: 'Well, we want you to do it.' " In fact, Barry, having seen an Izzard video, had already suggested him to Hall.

"I wanted to do it with a stand-up comedian," says Hall, "because stand-up is not acting and I don't think an actor could do it. That thing about sharing yourself with an audience - it's the most exposed thing in the theatre."

Bruce - "The godfather of alternative stand-up," says Izzard - exposed himself by exposing what he saw as the obscene iniquities that lay concealed beneath the smooth surface of America in the early 1960s. ("I'm just pissing on velvet," he said.) He discussed sex, religion and politics in ways that made him a hero of the nascent counterculture, twice had him expelled from Britain for being a threat to public order and finally had him brutally prosecuted in the US for obscenity. He was unhinged - his last performances ended with unfunny, rambling accounts of his court case - but inspired. He abandoned jokes, inventing instead the angry sideways take on life that was to dominate the energetic British stand-up scene of the 1980s. He died of an overdose in 1966. Some said he was killed by police persecution but, in truth, he was killed by the ruthless nerve-shredding demands of stand-up.

The height of his success was in New York in the early 1960s. He appeared, briefly, in Britain at Peter Cook's Establishment Club in Soho and his work was spread further by a few records. But his real fame came after his death, when he was embraced as a hero of the alternative culture that flowered after 1967. He was the first man to establish comedy as the new rock'n'roll and he was the model for every young, angry or just weird stand-up who came after. Bruce is the patron saint of stand-up.

The infinitely gentler Izzard doesn't do jokes, either. He only ever knew one - When is a door not a door? When it's ajar - and he simply can't get into the dynamic of using other people's stories and delivering punch lines. And, like Bruce, like every good stand-up, he exposes himself, but through life rather than satire. He admits his audience into the child-like banalities and wonders of his mind.

His mother died when he was six and, byseven, he had formed the conviction that he must become an actor. "It was desperation for the love of an audience. When there's no love coming, you thirst for it."

But there was no obvious route to stardom, so he moved fairly soberly through his schooldays and ended up reading accounting and financial management with mathematics - "It was the longest course name I could find. I thought it would look impressive" - at Sheffield. That lasted a year, then, having been inspired by Monty Python, he started doing sketch shows at the Edinburgh Festival.

"I failed and failed. I was confused. I'd played my big card. I just thought I'd do that Python thing and get into TV."

Then he failed again when, for two years, he did street shows in London with a student friend, Rob Ballard. Finally, he realised he had to do stand-up. London was, at the time, becoming the world capital of the art.

"I'd never considered it. I'd always admired Billy Connolly, but I was too scared to do it myself. I had developed this 'me' character on the street and I could talk to an audience. I started trying to write stand-up stuff. But it was very difficult so I just went ahead and booked a gig. That failed."

He worked earnestly at his style in comedy workshops - not good training, as everybody laughs at you in the hope you will laugh at them. Then, one day, he took apart a sketch he had written for two people about a man who was addicted to breakfast cereals. This was pure autobiography: Izzard loves cereals, adores Twixes and mistrusts fruit - pears, in his world, spitefully stay rock-hard for days and then suddenly go rotten when you're not looking. He rearranged the sketch for one person, did it himself and it worked.

He had found the style that was to blossom into its mature mix of surrealism, inspired banality, history lessons and religious and political speculation, all tied together by strange, dreamlike associations. Jesus, for example, could not run away from the Romans because he wore flip-flops; when Spock peered into that scanner on the deck of the Starship Enterprise he was secretly eating a Twix; Hannibal's elephants were good skiers - it's the momentum - and Noah, sawing wood for his Ark, is mysteriously metamorphosed into a man punching a baboon in the face. "I found" says Izzard, " I could talk stupid bollocks 'til the cows came home . . . it's bullshit but it sort of works."

Meanwhile, there was the transvestism. Since he regularly appeared on the stage and in the street dressed in women's clothes, he felt he needed to explain himself. He took this quite a long way, successfully proscecuting some lads who beat him up. But the key distinction he wanted to make was that he was not a drag queen; he was heterosexual, a male lesbian.

"I really had trouble explaining this. I'm a pervert by most social definitions all around the world. So I just called myself an executive transvestite and everybody said, 'Oh, that's fine, then', and it was all right."

And so he was, by the 1990s, a stand-up star, an exotic, heavily made-up cult. He had built a wall in his head to keep the fear at bay and he could confidently control big audiences for two hours or more. Yet he was not conventionally famous because he refused to do television. He was a TV but he wasn't on TV. It was all part of his continuing plan to become an actor.

"If you do comedy on TV you pick up all this baggage. I mean imagine Paul Merton or John Cleese playing Hamlet. You can't because television has fixed them in this comedy thing. Mel Gibson had all this action hero baggage when he played Hamlet - but he was just trying to drag this career thing across to something else."

But then: "To use a female empowerment term, I hit a glass ceiling. I could do all these shows with two or three thousand people every night of the year but I still couldn't reach as big an audience as I would with, say, an eight-minute slot on the Clive James Show."

So, as he broke on to the West End stage in 1993 and, subsequently, film acting, Izzard began to trickle on to television - via Have I Got News For You?, numerous chat shows and even Question Time. He had become an actor so he now could afford the television. But, though he releases videos of his shows, he still does not do his full-scale comedy work for television.

He is, without doubt, the finest flowering of the British stand-up comedy wave that began, heavily influenced by Lenny Bruce, in West End clubs in 1979. That wave, he is convinced, is as strong as ever. He has counted 85 comedy clubs in London compared to five each in New York and Los Angeles. And now drama and media studies courses at a number of British universities are offering courses in stand-up. The art is being institutionalised as a national asset.

"In America," says Izzard, "the best just get snapped up by film and TV. We don't have industries of that size, so the best stay on the circuit."

And he is, again without doubt, the most sympathetic star it is possible to imagine. "There is a sweetness about him," says Hall. Izzard works conscientiously at his craft and draws love from his audiences. He is, unlike almost every other comedian, always positive.

"I'd rather be pro than anti. Of course, railing against things is an easier comic tool, but I want to create, build things. I'm positive about politics - I don't say all politicians are bastards. And I think Europe can work, it's a great idea after 2,500 years of war. But where's the comic spin on that? It took me ages to get there. I'm quite Buddhist in my approach. I don't hate people."

Izzard overturns the old wisdom that comedy is all about cruelty and humiliation. For him it is about strangeness, puzzlement - what was Spock always looking at? - fantasy and fleeting incongruity - why is that dog food called Cesar and why don't Americans pronounce the "h" in herbs? It is about the fact that God probably would talk like James Mason and it is about his own compulsive autodidacticism - he uses a CD-Rom of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to fill his act with a startling range of documentary material. The theme is clear - this is comedy that springs from the perennial truth that normality always evades the normal imagination. And Izzard is, above all, normal.

"I'm normal and boring, this is my problem. I'm not windswept and interesting. Some people at school you hate because they're so f***ing interesting and everybody fancies them and wants to shag them. But I'm just boring. That's probably why I'm keen to do things that scare me - like stand-up, or doing the whole thing in French in Paris or going to America. I suppose it comes from being a transvestite."

Normal or not, he is a strange man to meet. In black T-shirt and black jeans - no make-up this time - he smokes his way through a lot of Silk Cuts as he tries earnestly to answer my questions. He is very proud of having subjected himself to intense self-analysis and this keeps emerging as very conclusive summaries of his own motives - the death of his mother crops up again and again.

Yet I felt, at the end, that I knew this Izzard no better than the Izzard I had watched on the stage and on video. And that, I suppose, is the point. Modern, post-Brucean stand-up comedy uses the comic's life as its raw material. Inevitably, therefore, the life and the art become one. I cannot get to know an Eddie Izzard who isn't a stand-up because that is what he always is - and always will be, however good he gets at acting.

"I'll do stand-up 'til I die. It's just too good. You've got to do it all the time or the fear comes back . . ."

In Bruce and, latterly, Izzard, stand-up has moved on from jokes and clowning to become an existential continuum. Like thought itself, like Samuel Beckett's "eternal quaqua", it just chatters on, evading punch lines and climaxes, evading death.

"Stuff endings!" cries Izzard as if - no, because - his life depended on it.

Lenny by Julian Barry, directed by Sir Peter Hall, will be at the Queen's Theatre from July 27 to October 16

From the Times Newspaper



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