It’s fully two decades since Rob Newman found himself in the spotlight as an arena comedian, back when stand-up was the new rock and roll and, alongside David Baddiel, he performed before a sellout crowd of 12,000 at Wembley.
You can’t wonder how much that experience scarred him. Performing an experimental set in front of fewer than 100 at Hemel Hempstead’s Old Town Hall, he seems at times detached, diffident, unsure of what he’s doing.
There’s none of the modern-day comedian’s stock in trade challenge to the audience, the conversation with the front row that allows well-worked snippets to be pulled in and presented as fresh material. Eye contact is not in his arsenal.
And it’s not the place to be if you’re looking for belly laughs and gags you can pass off as your own the next day. At times it seems more like a lecture with some smiles along the way.
Since that detour to the dizzying heights of hype, Newman – sometimes Robert, sometimes Rob – has followed a very individual path that sets him apart from the slick, stage savvy crowd-pleasers at the Michael McIntyre end of the spectrum.
He’s written novels, created well-regarded stage shows with a political and historical theme, and spent more time researching in libraries than he has slogging around the stand-up circuit.
There’s a new novel out soon – The Secret Trade, a story of oil exploration set in Elizabethan times – and the Old Town Hall appearance was part of a string of development gigs for his New Theory Of Evolution.
The theory, in a nutshell, goes like this – all that survival of the fittest tosh is just what they want you to believe, as a justification for capitalism red in tooth and claw. The real success stories of evolution are the species that share and work together.
Simple enough, but what you get along the way – what was billed as a one hour performance stretched comfortably beyond 90 minutes – is a thought-provoking, sometimes enlightening, meander through science, economics and history.
He’s not above slipping in the odd four letter word or joke about East Anglian inbreeding to keep the pot simmering, and towards the end he reached into his back catalogue for a few snatches of previous routines for reassurance.
But at the core of the routine are nuggets that no other comic would think of using as the basis of a show – fascinating facts of the sort that might crop up on QI as the excuse for a few gags, but here are at the core of the routine.
Some of it’s stuff you might vaguely know, but much is genuinely new information that challenges your received knowledge – and instead of the QI klaxon making you feel like a klutz for what you previously believed, Newman gently moves on with his lesson.
In fact, he almost has a donnish air, in old fogey outfit complete with a cardigan that’s certainly seen better days. Instead of the squash he sips on stage, you wouldn’t be surprised if he was savouring a nice dry sherry.
But there’s no flashback to the caricature history professor that became a playground staple back in the big arena days, this is serious, considered stuff that makes you think.
This show is still taking shape, but even when it’s a finished piece there will be no grandstanding guffaws.
It will, however, be well worth seeing if you’ve got an open mind, an interest in how the past informs the present, and you’re willing to lend an ear to a very individual voice who once wandered into the mainstream, realised it was a wrong turn and has since been painstakingly plotting his own path.
By John Francis
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