Live Review: Robert Newman, Soho Theatre

Notebooks and pens out, Robert Newman has a new show. The one-time rock and roll stand-up has always been a bit of a clever clogs and in recent years he has taken his comedy in a distinctly professorial direction. His last show, in which he bashed Richard Dawkins and proposed his own theory of evolution made Robin Ince look like Roy Chubby Brown. 

As the title suggests, in his new show The Brain Show he is exploring the workings of our squidgy grey matter. He sets out his stall fairly early on, suggesting that various theses are not quite up to much. Did genome mapping really think it could find a gene for homelessness? Apparently because genome mapping pissed a lot of money away a lot of funding is now going into working out how the brain works instead.

Newman explains that he himself took part in a major experiment into the workings of the brain in 2014, but things didn’t go quite as planned. On the plus side though, he did meet a scientist that he quite fancied and he decided to take part in her experiments into feeling guilt.

While this is not exactly sidesplitting Newman, who manages to pull off the impressive feat of being both intellectually pompous and nicely self-mocking, does know how to find humour in such a potentially arid subject, whether by dropping in an impression of Paul McCartney or Brian Cox, taking a swipe at identikit mainstream stand-ups or sending up his own pretentiousness. At one point he sarcastically wondered why his he was not playing bigger venues, what with his material being so accessible and all that. 

Last night’s show, however, did seriously hit the buffers during a digression about David Bowie and how the late superstar didn’t seem to express any guilt about his flirtation with far right ideas in the 1970s. Newman suggested that having a black wife was no defence, pointing out that Robert Mugabe also has a black wife. This routine bombed bigtime and totally flattened the positive mood of the night. Too soon? I’d assumed it was an ad lib but I've since read that it had already been in his act long before Bowie’s death. I wonder if it will stay there now.

Newman is nothing if not a professional though and he did pull things back, although I’m still not sure if his musical number supported by two plastic squids is an avenue he should be heading down. But the set does end on a big laugh when he recounts how while being a guinea pig in the guilt research he had to don an electro encephalogram helmet (pictured). The idea is that this device can read one’s thoughts. It clearly wasn’t working properly though when he put it on last night, otherwise it would have flashed up the words “I wish I’d dropped that Bowie routine”.

Soho Theatre until Jan 23 then touring. Dates here.


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