Withstanding the daily increase in the threat of nuclear annihilation, there really hasn’t been a better time to be a political stand-up. For all the outrage and controversy that dogged his earlier career, that is what Frankie Boyle unequivocally now is. Whereas once gags at the expense of Z-list celebrities would have been the ones that stuck in the mind following one of his gigs, these days he has his sights trained on bigger targets, cutting through the hypocrisy of any number of political and cultural institutions with an irresistible ruthlessness.
A strong stomach and hardy constitution are a must for what is an hour of ferocious standup.
People familiar with his newspaper columns or TV work will be well aware of this. They have afforded him almost rock star status in some circles, reflected by the soundtrack playing as the audience files in. Boyle takes the stage and is straight into it; he is out of shape, he admits, but he argues that this could serve to heighten his appeal to prospective partners. The relatively benign punchline on the phrase ‘parched spaniel’ kicks off an uncompromising hour in which the gags keep coming, each one more vicious than the last.
The show is billed as the first of Boyle’s eight volume Promethiad. Add this to any sort of acquaintance with his BBC show monologues, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the gig would involve something more long-form. The Glaswegian’s forte is the caustic put-down however, and it’s his weapon of choice in this first instalment. The dynamic throughout is similar to the type employed in his earlier work. There is deadpan set up (usually an idea or institution, a person or politician), followed shortly after by a takedown of devastating effect: repeat ad nauseam. While he was once cruel to the point of unbearable for some people, his performances are now backed up by what are clearly strongly held political beliefs. And whether or not you agree with him, or think that his targets are fair game, there is something almost majestic in this sort of fine-tuned misanthropy.
But is it misanthropy? On the night, one heckler took it upon himself to try to shout over Boyle – his response is typically contemptuous. When the audience member is ejected, Boyle, on a serious note, wonders aloud if it’s his own pessimism that is being reflected back at him. For a few moments, he seems genuinely bereft, as if he couldn’t take having his own misanthropic views confirmed by one spectator’s inability to offer even the most basic level of civility.
Brexit, Trump, North Korea, and the monarchy are the usual topics you would expect any satirist worth his salt to confront, and Boyle does not disappoint. His riffs on Prince Philip and Prince Harry are hilarious, but rather than being just pot shots at a ridiculous elite, it’s the lingering sense of cynicism which permeates the entire show that gives it such an edge; the joke is not only on the royals, but also on the rest of humanity for having the misfortune to live in a system where such absurd privilege and pretence is so entrenched.
There are lighter moments, it must be said, with a digression on a bin man’s day-to-day throwing some unexpected silliness into the mix. A few times too he lets us have a look at the ‘dream factory’ to see where the gags are forged. One in particular stands out, where he admits that he does not know how to end a bit involving Melania Trump, a number of Secret Service agents, and a leg lock. Granted, it’s not the strongest section, but the hint of Boyle ‘going meta’ offers a much appreciated break from the riotously gruesome material that surrounds it. A strong stomach and hardy constitution are a must for what is an hour of ferocious standup.