One of the very great joys of comedy is an act that can apply a considerable intelligence and erudition to the art of being very, very silly. No-one does this better than John-Luke Roberts, and After Me Comes the Flood is further evidence that he’s not only one of the finest clowns, but surely one of the best comedians currently pounding a stage.
Roberts isn’t just indulging in absurd whimsy for its own sake, although there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s clear from the first moments where he tells the audience he’s generously providing the punchline to the first joke in advance that there is going to be method in the ensuing madness. Everyone still laughs. Aha!
After Me Comes the Flood is Roberts’ idiosyncratic take on the deconstruction of humour. For the duration of the show it’s as if he’s kicking the notion of comedy to pieces while tickling it to see if it still giggles. Comedy works by surprise, with each gag simply a delightful fright. “Laughter is just a modified scream,” is how he puts it. He’s removing the surprise to see if it still functions. It does.
This sounds pretentious, but as it’s all achieved through the most perfect frippery, the show is also just surface-level hilarious even wearing Roberts’ intellectual interests on its sleeve. It’s clear he has a fondness for repurposing dense concepts to the service of pure daftness. He references such names as Newton, Pavlov and Schrödinger, and existentialism is a particular touchstone, with such thinkers as Descartes, Nietzsche and… Old McDonald all filtered through his joyfully unique imagination.
Roberts himself eschews props this year. A completely incidental crown and a fetching green moustache are his only adornments. His clowning comes from his physicality and his way with words. He gives the impression of chaos, but After Me Comes the Flood is immaculately structured, which seemingly random characters popping up again and again like Whack-a-Moles. Of particular delight is Roberts’ romantic partner; a chronically passive-aggressive Oompa-Loompa who expresses their frequent disapproval through familiar musical interludes. Roberts switches between characters with ease, while constantly pointing out the artifice at every turn.
There isn’t a single point where the energy dips or where the attention wanders. Roberts is a genial madman and a riveting stage presence with the slightly unsettling edge of many of the best clowns. Surrealism can often feel unfocused, filtered through a hazy gauze of oneiric weirdness for its own sake. John-Luke Roberts somehow tames the numerous frayed strands of his imagination into something (relatively) coherent, hilarious and wonderful.