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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Bruce Dessau

Rob Newman at Soho Theatre review: an exquisitely well-crafted show

Rob Newman has frequently been ahead of the curve. He and David Baddiel were the first comedians to appear at Wembley Arena in 1993, ushering in the era of comedy as the new rock and roll, with him as chief sex symbol. As a politicised solo stand-up he was vocal about fossil fuels before many Stop Oil protestors had even been born.

So it is gratifying to see that this current run finds him on superb form, mixing scientific exploration with personal reflections. Maybe it’s not breaking major new ground, although he does perform some infectious, original electropop, which is not something he is known for. Perhaps he and his namesake Gary Numan were separated at birth.

He is clearly not afraid to tackle big themes. In the first half he neatly unpicks the controversy over that bane of the petrolhead, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, or LTNs. There were similar schemes in ancient Rome, he suggests, where citizens had to get off their carts and push them. One cannot imagine Clapham residents descending from their 4x4s and doing the same.

It is a brilliantly clever conceit complete with act-outs, characters and voices. Newman has always been a superb mimic and this set features vocal cameos from, among others, Paul McCartney, Mick Jones of The Clash and David Suchet in the guise of Poirot.

After the interval he dissects Charles Darwin and, in particular, the evolution of speech. Newman’s theory is that people started to form social groups so that together they could be louder and have more chance of seeing off predators. Whether this would survive a rigorous peer review I can’t say, but as the basis for a stand-up routine it certainly has mileage.

Elsewhere he talks about therapy, bumptious loudmouths and how spiders can fly long distances. Some have been found 60 miles out to sea (“is there an end to this bathtub?”). And to confirm that despite his baggy professorial suit he has not gone full fogey there is some hip hop, with him sending up the genre’s bad-boy braggadocio by reading out a letter expressing rapper’s remorse: “my only jail time has been while playing Monopoly.”

Very few comics delve into the areas he likes to pursue. He might reference DH Lawrence or use obscure words such as “oracular” but a twinkle in his eye and a curl of his lip suggests that he knows better than anyone in the room how pretentious he is being when he does it.

The closest comparison is Stewart Lee, who is also drawn towards finding the funnies in bookwormish esoterica. Newman has a more poetic soul, while not being averse to self-mockery about his current status in the showbiz firmament.

He may no longer be a heartbreakingly handsome pin-up and he may never play arenas again. But Newman remains one of comedy’s most skilled performers. This is an exquisite, erudite, well-crafted show. One with its tongue firmly planted in its Cambridge-educated cheek.

Soho Theatre, to Saturday;

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