Josie Long is without question a consummate performer. She’s articulate and intelligent, endearing in a perfectly calibrated awkward-cute way, her timing is brilliant, her voices and characters are mesmeric, her ability to work a room and control an audience is outstanding.
You can tell there’s a ‘but’ coming, right?
Like newspaper columnists, the problem with stand-up comedians is often that they announce their views of the world without having seen very much of it. They might be able to tell jokes or construct pleasing sentences, but that rarely corresponds to having lived not wisely but too well. When someone does have an idiosyncratic perspective or profound experiences to share, it can be an absolute joy.
Long’s material is by far at its strongest when she’s embarking on wild fantasies: the Jedward routine and the one-woman play about the Brontës are both painfully funny and startlingly convincing. She says at one point that she’s seen a lot of sci-fi, and it shows in her grasp of imaginative possibilities that twist reality in odd ways. It also adds a layer of sophistication and humour to her otherwise horrifying account of a car crash which nearly left her for dead last year.
It was this car crash which, along with the coming to power of the coalition, set Long off on her new, political, direction. A disclaimer: in general, I’ve not got much affection for groups of middle-class people applauding self-congratulatorily at political comedy or its academic equivalent. I’m not sure the two things sit very well together, even if there is a collecting tin at the end. Unfortunately, last night did little to change that.
The jarring contrast of Long’s newfound fury at the government with her cheery, whimsical stock-in-trade is made explicit from the beginning – she repeatedly explains, justifies, apologises for this new subject matter, in a defence which is also a plea in mitigation. She knows that, no matter how true or important or deeply felt this stuff is, it’s just not quite as funny. The account of going on ‘This Week’ and accidentally telling Michael Portillo that he’s her favourite Tory (“He’s not even! It’s Bercow. OK, he’s not a real Tory…”) and her passionate defence of the protest movement UKUncut are interesting and witty, but by the end I did feel somewhat hectored without being edified. We all know the Tories are awful, we all hate the cuts and think that the super-rich should pay more tax, and respect to Long for going out and doing something about it. But impotent fury at the powers that be is nothing new, or shouldn't be.
It’s difficult to make these criticisms because Long herself is so overtly and self-consciously aware of the pitfalls of her new political direction. She harangues herself for this, apologises to us if we don’t like it, and seems genuinely torn between her desire to be funny and her need to express her political convictions. At one point she is drawn into an embryonic political debate with an audience member, but then pulls back from it, saying “hang on, this is turning into a political argument, not a comedy gig.” And therein lies the problem.
Even being self-aware to this extent doesn't meld 'happy Josie' and 'angry Josie' into a unified whole. These two personae battle for supremacy as she breaks off to castigate herself and picks up one of the cards strewn about the stage on which she's listed things she likes, her fantasies, her hobbies. The struggle between the two characters is played out in the open and she controls the mood in the room expertly, but it inevitably still jars.
To be fair, I may just be a grumpy old woman. There was lots and lots of heartfelt laughter in the room last night. Josie Long has a wealth of material and an abundance of wit and charisma at her disposal. But it is perhaps better directed at Jedward than Jeremy Paxman.
Josie Long is at Soho Theatre until Saturday 22 October.