For a man who made his reputation on the strength of his stand-up videos, Eddie Izzard’s last DVD, Sexie, was something of a disappointment.
Recorded way too early in his first worldwide tour for several years, the performance was stilted and the material patchy, with only isolated smatterings of the brilliance we’d hoped for. By the time his arena dates came to an end, he’d rediscovered his mojo – but it was too late, he’d already committed a lacklustre early gig to electronic immortality.
It’s a mistake he appears to have learned from. For the next tour, unimaginatively called Sexie II, he’s keeping his work in progress hush-hush, with a month of semi-secret late-night gigs in London’s modest Soho Theatre, rather than in such a public arena as before.
And the good news is that if the gig Chortle saw is anything to go by, Sexie II is going to be a blinder. Though no one is under any illusions that these unpublicised shows are anything but test bed for new material, there are already more promising routines at this early stage than in the entire filmed prequel.
Much of it comprises the surreal observational humour for which he’s rightly acclaimed. His re-enactments of the simple tasks of shooing a fly through a window or sending a text message are devastatingly funny routines that will surely prove highlights of the final draft. On paper, they would look nothing, but the conviction and exaggerated accuracy with which he acts out every minute detail make them special.
Elsewhere, Izzard – dress in civvies, rather any transvestite get-up - tries to capture big philosophical or political ideas down into easily digestable jokes. At this early stage, he’s only partially successful, but there’s fun to be had seeing how his mind works towards the punchline. And as a devoted Europhile, he is duty bound to take potshots at his nemeses at the UK Independence Party, which he mostly manages to pull off – despite being acutely aware that the very word ‘Europe’ is an instant turn-off for many.
He picks up many topics from his earlier work – horse-whispering, sharks, superheroes, the instruments of torture employed by dentists – sometimes expanding on earlier routines, sometimes merely reprising them. We even get an update on the ‘bees make honey, do wasps make chutney’ riff from his back catalogue.
These repeats, presumably, will have no place in the finished product, but they do provide some guaranteed material to break up the try-out gags, and ensure the two hours go by in a breeze.
But even to see him flail, at least in these informal surroundings, is entertaining, as he gropes for ideas, words or punchlines, sometimes getting sucked into tangents as he does. For example, he produces a report a dyslexia expert compiled on him, to no particular end, but it’s fun watching him struggle to make head or tail of the dense language.
In some ways, Izzard has suffered the inevitable fate of every influential stand-up, in that he is no longer in a league of his own. As his techniques that were once so revolutionary dissipate into the everyday texture of stand-up, the trailblazer no longer stands apart. But as these low-key shows prove beyond doubt, he is still a master exponent of his craft, with even a half-finished, under-rehearsed offering putting many established comics to shame.To see him at work, especially in such exclusive company and at such an intimate venue, is a rare honour indeed. Here’s to a future tour that re-establishes his well-deserved reputation.
September 9, 2004