Simon Munnery is a comedian content with being a spectral figure on the outer reaches. He appeared in numerous television programmes, including his own failed yet marvellous sketch show Attention Scum! back in 2001, but his true domain is the stage, performing contemplative work based on the life of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and his one-man punk musical about the 1930 R101 airship disaster. Tonight, at The Stand in Glasgow, Munnery returns with Standing Still for the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, a ‘classically-structured’ demonstration of his comedy chops, although no less extraordinary for it.
It’s been said by movers and shakers in alternative comedy that respectable, socially engaged stand up ought to at least contain the word ‘Brexit’ a handful of times. Indeed, the fate of comedy routines has rested on the vital outcome of 23 June last year; Comedian Bridget Christie, for example, is said to have rewritten an entire Edinburgh show in the aftermath of that unthinkable result. It speaks to stand up’s unique ability as an art form to think historical events can be adequately and meaningfully explored by having one foot planted firmly in the silly.
The opening of Munnery’s set is no different. Only his take on Brexit is quite singular. He emerges on stage looking like a folkloric barrow boy from a mythical East End of London or a song by The Fall; he wears a noisy overcoat fashioned from Strongbow cans, a hat with a circling falcon attached, and a pig mask over his crotch. Of course, he also yells W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’, a portrait of end times, like an eschatological mad English teacher trying to engage his students. This must be his ‘opening to die for’, as the show’s description has it; a mesmerizing play in miniature, and a thrilling minute of post-Brexit theatre at once hilarious and absolutely terrifying.
This has always been Munnery’s shtick: the wholehearted embrace of high and low art. Packed into a solid hour of stand up are a wondrous mixture of topics as diverse as 18th century agricultural legislation, anti-capitalist protest songs, an existentialist B-grade Doctor Who villain, sketches using clothes pegs, and the observations of a house-bound father. As if his esoteric meditations weren’t enough, his performance is also frequently dotted with some of the best one-liners in the game, even if they sometimes seem to whizz by so quickly the audience can scarcely laugh at them.
All of the above Munnery pulls off better than many of his contemporaries. Though the hour is filled with a vast amount of divergent material it’s staggering how well everything sits together, like a busy patchwork held in place by his distinct voice. One imagines Munnery’s mind as an enormous Rolodex of choice gags, ready to be implemented at will, never quite a non sequitur. Fans will be familiar with some of his jokes and anecdotes from interviews or old routines, but they’re so riotously funny it doesn’t matter.
After a fictional conversation about skiing between a couple on a date, Munnery ends his show as abruptly as it started. The audience doesn’t get up to leave; they instead approach him, buy his DVDs and shake his hand. Tonight was just another night for the comedian and his followers, another meet-up within a long understood and respected agreement spanning his 30 year career. For those less familiar with Munnery’s frenetic cabaret, it must feel as if a portal to a demon world has been briefly opened, then closed before any of its inhabits could make themselves comfortable in our world. Not bad for a Monday night.