Simon Munnery’s Hats Off To The 101ers, And Other Material @ The Old Market, Hove, 16/02/12
As household names go, Simon Munnery isn’t one. Despite over twenty years of performing live comedy and experimental theatre, writing his own radio shows, performing at the Edinburgh Festival, and even landing his own BBC 2 Television show, 2001’s Attention Scum!, directed by his friend Stewart Lee, chances are your mum has never heard of him. Nevertheless, undaunted by your maternal parent’s probable ignorance of the contemporary post-alternative comedy scene, Simon Munnery brought his latest touring show, Hats Off To The 101ers, And Other Material, to Hove’s premier Arts venue.
Ostensibly an ‘overly ambitious one man punk musical about the R101 airship of the 1930s’, Hats Off was in fact a clever jumble of experimental theatre, capitalist soap bubbles, Bob Dylan impressions, crucifixion-based animations, monologues, poetry recitals, and lectures about breasts. In fact the ‘musical’ was so short and esoteric as to be almost entirely irrelevant to the show, a tactic deployed, it seemed, to purposefully wrong-foot the audience just enough to open them up to the surreal and hilarious material that followed.
A metallic lattice archway, decorated with black and white photographs of airmen – the 101ers – dominated the stage. As well as providing the perfect dramatic frame for the performance, the archway adequately fulfilled the practical requirements for suspending the simple oblong of Munnery’s brilliant One Down, a masterfully performed animation about the death of the “son of whatsisname.” Forget the 101ers: One Down is the spiritual centre of this show, surpassing even Life of Brian in its effortlessly incisive, and touchingly cheeky satire.
Referring to the archway later in the show, Simon says: “every show needs a structure” – although structure is exactly what the show appears to lack. As he leaps from character to character faster than Sam Beckett on a scratched Quantum Leap DVD, it’s impossible to know which one of these personalities is the real Simon Munnery. Not the character reading the intense, electronically enhanced poem about the singularity-like pull of London. Not the Science-bragging, pill-popping, crime-solving ne’er-do-well of The True Confessions Of Sherlock Holmes. Definitely not the misogynistic, po-faced, Germaine Greer-obsessed professor who instructs us that: “Breasts are something to be overcome, not come over.” In all honesty it’s the sort of act that fans of Peter Kay or Lee Evans might tire of pretty quickly – but fans of Stewart Lee will feel right at home amidst the multi-layered satire and the clunky, asymmetrical virtuosity.
Yet there are jokes, actual bona-fide jokes, the sort that your dad, and possibly your aunt, might like – jokes about swearing, and bras, and the Daily Mail. This more traditional stand-up fare comes easily to Munnery… so he goes out of his way to make it hard for himself: interrupting himself, criticising himself, hiding his best one-liners in the middle of off-beat rambles that trail off into awkward, stammering apologies… One minute he stalls badly and the audience is lost; the next he wins them back effortlessly… a cycle of comedic boom-and-bust as dynamic as Capitalism, and at least as hilarious.