Review: Robert Newman, Soho Theatre

Philosophy seems to be a suitable subject for comedy at the moment. Ethical issues have been one of the strands of the brilliant Netflix series The Good Place and now here comes Robert Newman with his latest excellently titled show, Total Eclipse of Descartes. 

Newman has been a professorial comedian for longer than he was a superstar pin-up comedian now, so fans should know what to expect. Suit, fogeyish bowtie and a tendency to slip into the occasional comedy impression. I bet he could do a great Jacob Rees-Mogg without too much effort, but he doesn't.

His show is certainly ambitious, aiming to show how we got into our modern mess over the last 2000 years and how we can get out of it. In an hour.

The main focus at the start is education. His argument is that selective schools are bad. Nothing particularly controversial there and Newman certainly seems to have done his research. His story of educational psychologist Cyril Burt falsifying results is fascinating. In fact it was so bizarre I did wonder whether he was making it up, but according to Wikipedia it's all true.

This is part of the problem of Newman's show. Sometimes the line between what is true and what isn't is blurred, which is ironic given given that he castigates Cyril Burt for fabrication. He talks about being adopted himself and this all sounds accurate. But then he also has a story about teaching his daughter and, while some of this might well be true, it eventually spins off into a riff which is surely a flight of fancy. 

The other issue is that the show is not always funny. There are quite lengthy, pensive, intellectually demanding passages which take a while to reach a comic pay-off. Most of the time it is worth it, but I occasionally got anxious waiting for the laughs to arrive (the person in front of me checking their phone didn't help, but maybe they were anxious too). The show comes to life, however, when comedy and philosophy meets, such as his tale of Pythagoras told as if it is an episode of The Sopranos. Elsewhere Newman does a rather convincing Paul McCartney impression.

In fact the conundrum is that I was more convinced by his impressions than his philosophical arguments. In places Newman is basically returning to a theory that he has suggested before - that humans thrive more when they are mutually supportive than when they are in competition. He talked about this when he questioned Darwin's Survival of the Fittest in a show a few years back. 

Total Eclipse of Descartes is never less than fascinating though. And having read philosophy at university it was of particular interest to me. He certainly had a new take on the Fat Man On A Bridge question and Philippa Foot's Trolley Bus moral dilemma, which I studied (it also cropped up on The Good Place). Whether it counts as comedy I'm not so sure. But it definitely does make you think.

Various dates until March 10. Click here for specific dates and tickets.


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