From Caliban to the Taliban - 500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention You might not have guessed it from the title, but this is an opportunity to see Rob Newman on stage for an evening of thought-provoking political comedy. His 40 date national tour started off in the Soho Theatre and finishes at the end of July. I can't really say that I know much about his stand-up, but I was in the mood for an anti-Bush rant on the eve of Independence Day, and my boyfriend was paying, so what the hell. Who is Rob Newman? ****************** Newman's first big break in showbusiness came with 'The Mary Whitehouse Experience' in 1989 on Radio 1, a programme performed with David Baddiel, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis. Mary Whitehouse was an obnoxious, self-appointed guardian of our morals throughout the 70s and 80s. If she gave her seal of disapproval to anything it was a sure sign that the ratings would go up. The radio show was so successful that a transfer to BBC2 followed, achieving the distinction of being the first TV programme to be reported to the British Broadcasting Standards Council for using the word w*****. When the series ended, Rob teamed up with David to make 'Newman and Baddiel in Pieces' for BBC2. In 1993 they managed to be the first comedy act to ever fill a major Wembley venue (excluding Spurs, when Gary Mabbutt's own goal won the cup for Coventry in 1987). Rob made the split from Baddiel after this. I am not really sure why, but would like to think it was because he realized that David just isn't funny at all. Ever. In the intervening years he has written two novels, which met with critical acclaim, toured with more stand-up shows and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Rob is a fully paid up member of the 'right on' (or should that be 'left on'?) brigade, having encouraged boycotts of Nestle sponsored events such as the Perrier Awards and the Hay-on-Wye Litera
ture Festival. Further to this, he has taken part in many anti-war rallies and was twice arrested in Whitehall for obstruction. The Show ********* Whilst the audience of students, art students, middle-aged first time round fans and a man who had brought his elderly mother (at least I hope she was) waited for Newman to appear, we were treated to some wailing Eastern European music. I'm not sure whether this was meant to be an ironic comment or an atmospheric touch, but I could have done without it. The stage had no fancy set designs or props to dazzle; just a plain wooden table with a carafe of water, against a back drop of black curtains. Very spartan. Newman's entrance was unassuming, which pretty much set the tone for the rest of the show. He was wearing the standard grey suit that is de rigeur for left wing activists. Underneath this was a purple T shirt, but corporate logos such as Nike are not for the likes of Rob. Instead, his chest was emblazoned with THAT slogan 'George Bush and Son. Family Butchers since 1990.' On his feet were casual shoes which were clearly not made in a sweatshop. So, all his clothing passed the politically correct test, but how did his other material match up? The show started with an explanation of why he had put his tour together. Whilst traveling through Albuquerque two years ago, he heard a caller on a radio phone-in whinging about 'all them Vietnamese comin' over and livin' next door to me. How'd they feel if a whole bunch o' Americans moved into Vietnam?' We were then treated to a diatribe on American foreign policy that was intelligent and powerfully funny, delivered at a blistering pace. Littered with anti-globalisation messages, his lecture was an example of just how good history lessons could be if only teachers weren't constrained by Key Stage 3 tests. Did you know what was so special about the year 1892? If you want to
impr ess your friends then remember this fact - it is the only year from 1798 up to the present day that the USA were not involved in the invasion of another country. So what made the American army gay that year? Newman went on to speculate whether it might have been the introduction of the first basketball rules, or the Pennsylvania steel workers' strike -'No war but the class war'. My own explanation is Oliver Hardy was born that year, and I am guessing that the army took a break as a mark of respect since they knew they were in the presence of comedic greatness. Of course, all the facts were presented in a way as to deliver a good punchline, like any good comedian would ensure. And, like any lecture, there were times when you wanted to interrupt and disagree. But I found his manner very relaxed and easy on the ear. I don't want to give away too many of his jokes because that would spoil his show, but there were plenty of tasteless references to the Twin Towers destruction: 'I forget the date' and the Pentagon attack: '..now referred to as The Quad'. Sick references were also made to the Moscow theatre siege: 'How long did it take the audience to realize it wasn't part of the show?' Bob Dylan was another target of Rob's, when he performed a cutting impression of 'Mr Tambourine Man' on his ukulele. His lyrics savagely attacked Dylan for having lost his integrity and selling out to corporates. Newman included many impressions in his act - hardly surprising since that is how he started his career. Johnny Rotten, Tony Blair, Harold Steptoe and Richard Burton were all skillfully executed, whilst a drunk Anne Hathaway made a bitter attack on Shakespeare. As an A level English student, my boyfriend found this the funniest part of the act. Rob himself has an English degree and is not afraid to use it. Quotes from Joseph Conrad and George Orwell might have left a lesser audience feeli
ng intimid ated until, in a very self-effacing manner Rob admits that he doesn't have a clue what Orwell's statement 'Whoever controls the present controls the past.' is all about. I think my favourite part of the show had to be where he talked about going on protest marches. I could relate to the initial 'sense of camaraderie and common cause' that he spoke about, but then, also, to when half an hour later you have that sentiment of 'If you blow that f****** whistle in my ear once again..' He later took us unawares by admitting that the finest demo to have occurred in recent history is the Countryside march. It came as a relief to find that this was merely a device which allowed him to use the punchline 'Best night's poaching in my life!' I wasn't ever a fan of Rob, but I came away with a new found respect for him. He does come across as a very genuine guy, having travelled extensively through the South American countries whose oppression he talked about. This is not some airheaded celebrity trying to look chic by associating themselves with good causes. His humanitarian work has been going on for decades, and he reminded me of a radical Christian, the only sort that I have any time for. His love of literature shines through in his stand-up, and I found a lovely quote in The Guardian from him where, having been an adopted child, he admits 'Books have been like parental figures to me, though not always successful ones'. I would recommend this gig if you have had it up to here with US foreign policy. Although there were plenty of lines that made me chuckle out loud, it's not the sort of show that has you in fits of laughter, more nodding your head with a wry smile. The act lasts for just under two hours, including a half time interval. Time never seemed to drag, which is always a good sign. There were one or two places with over dramatic pauses, or perhaps he had fl
uffed his lines , or lost his train of thought. This didn't seem to matter, however, to the warm and supportive theatre audience. The two remaining shows of this tour are in Salford Quays 11 July and Darlington 19 July. Tickets cost £12 each, which seemed reasonable value. His Autumn tour starts again in September, where venues include Windsor, Nottingham, Northampton, Birmingham, Oxford and Cardiff. For more information see Rob's website at www.robnewman.com. If you are unable to see him live, you can buy the live recording of his Aberdeen gig of this tour on CD from the website for £10. The Fountain At The Centre of the World, his latest novel, is due for publication in September. It comes out in America in January and I have heard rumours that he may tour there to publicise it. I don't fancy his chances of coming back alive though!