- Rachael Fairburn
Opening up a comedy show for a name as big as STEWART FRANCIS can’t be easy, especially to a full house of dedicated fans who’ve been watching his unique act on stage and screen for decades; fans who are, by definition, used to big laughs at short jokes, a particular and defined style of humour and delivery. Undeterred, RACHEL FAIRBURN takes to the Philharmonic stage and delivers a short set of self-deprecating gags to a supportive crowd. Her’s is a different style to that of the headliner (isn’t everyone’s?) and the Phil is a big room to fill, but she battles through the quieter responses. And there are a few, it’s fair to say. The few laughs there are come as a result of the self-deprecation, rather than the content, so at times, it does feel a little forced.
Stewart Francis comes dancing onstage and immediately launches into a characteristically relentless barrage of one-liners, wordplay gags and brilliantly observed puns. His unique take on this style of instant humour is full of the trademark sharp, acerbic wit that all his material is crafted from. The nuanced art of the pun is a skill few of his peers possess. Much of his work involves deconstructing well-known phrases and giving them a new meaning, and Francis’ gift, or one of them, is in how easy he makes it look and feel. And the deadpan delivery helps him distance himself from the punchlines, the jokes just left hanging for all to enjoy. He takes a scattergun approach, flying wildly between related, and often unrelated topics, yet somehow makes it all feel like one big joke.
The set is peppered throughout with callbacks – a well-practised specialty of his – which sees him referring back to earlier jokes, and even earlier shows and older material, so when a joke works, as they all do, we are given several chances to laugh at it again. In other comedians this would be seen as some kind of disappointing sell out. With Francis, it’s practically demanded of him. That’s why it works so well. Again, the delivery and the timing is pin sharp throughout. He moves in parts towards physical theatre, using every part of his body to stretch the surreal narrative of so much of the show’s highpoint. The magic of his act is held in the sober, straight-backed nature of how he sets the jokes up, leaving the audience concentrating their focus so hard on the build-up, that the punchline, when it lands, really does punch. Even though they’re often so very obvious, we just don’t see them coming. Which, of course, makes them even funnier. Comedy such as this is really the perfect craft, and Francis an absolute master. It really is a shame that this tour, Into The Punset, is his final swan song at standup, as he retires from performance at the end of this year. Punderful, wonderful work. He’ll be missed.