Review: Soiree in a Cemetery, Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Stewart Lee in a Cemetery

When you see a lot of comedy gigs like I do something that is a bit different usually has a head start. And Soiree in a Cemetery was very different. Ticket-holders only discovered the location of this one-off in the afternoon, which meant that excitement was building up even before arriving. There was a bit of anxiety about the weather as autumn had decided to chip in, but the rain stopped, the sky cleared and, as long as you were well-insulated by overcoats and alcohol a good time was had by all. 

Tower Hamlets Cemetery was a pretty spectacular setting. We were told that there were around 40 bodies under each gravestone due to popular demand. There were more people buried here than are currently alive in the borough. Having arrived, sat down and enjoyed a welcoming song from the British Humanist Choir (pictured below) and a peanut butter and banana muffin from the non-ironic Women’s Institute stall we were all taken on a tour, along paths lit by candles in paper bags.

soireeThis was a little like Arthur Smith’s old tours of Edinburgh crossed with a ghost train ride. Little pocket performances popped up along the way. Jessica Pearce dancing with fire here, an undertaker there. Henry Maynard with a grisly skull puppet sitting on a tomb, screaming brides running past. It was all very evocative and atmospheric if a little crowded - the event sold out and around 400 people were squeezed in. 

After this it was back to our al fresco benches where spooky folksome duo Gentle Folk delivered eeerily catchy songs about prostitutes and lost graveyards in Southwark. Poetess/host/laughter therapist Vivienne Soan, of Nunhead variety club Pull The Other One (who put the night together with Adam Taffler of special event organisers @adamotionsuk) compered, getting everyone to release endorphins by giggling hysterically. Elsewhere her husband Martin Soan went around shaking everyone's hands – he's usually in naked balloon dance troupe The Greatest Show On Legs but this wasn’t the climate for stripping off or a location for gratuitous nudity.

And then it was time for the headline act who didn’t want to be called the headline act. Stewart Lee is currently doing gigs testing
out his material for the next series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. This time round he did his challenging routine subverting the stand-up trope of churning out gags about childhood memories with a recollection of being bullied in the school urinals. It's a very funny routine pulling together Lee's own tropes of repetition, exaggeration and mock irritation.


It was a potentially tricky gig for Lee. This was probably the most comedy-literate easy-to-amuse audience he was ever going to get (he opened with an ironic remark of "tough gig") and there is a section in the set which depends on not getting a lot of laughs. But with a bit of improvisation around his scripted material be pulled it off. He also got a fair number of chuckles out of a random insect flying across the makeshift stage just as he was building to his finale.  

The eminence gris of stand-up said to me a few years ago that he tends to have phases where he goes in and out of fashion every seven years so he should be due for a fall any time now, but there was no sign of it last night. Yes, alright, I’ll say it he was dead funny. 

Lee had not wanted to be called the headline act and in fact he wasn’t. He was followed by shadow puppeteer Matthew Robins who sang warped Tiger Lillies-style song-stories while images of flies and other animals danced around on the screen. A lovely end to a very special night. I think the organisers will probably do more. Now, if they can only install radiators in the cemetery for their next event…



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