“Two minutes in and I’m already using old material,” Alexei Sayle quips – in all honesty – after getting a laugh from a jibe about the pretentious use of the word “workshop” (don’t, is his advice, unless you’re connected with light engineering).
Alarm-bells start to ring at this point, downstairs at Soho Theatre among the expectant, rather stern-looking faithful, many of the crowd probably old enough to be able to quote his best stuff from yesteryear back at him, albeit interspersed by the odd younger, openly curious face.
Sayle swore, ahead of his return to stand-up after 16 years away, that he wouldn’t simply rehash gags from his anarchic, post-punk heyday when he was alternative comedy’s kingpin. The grim thought occurred that, as just come-uppance, Sayle had doomed himself to resemble the sort of desperate has-been entertainer his gang openly despised.
In the event, though, the now white-bearded scally, got up in sober black T-shirt and trousers, doesn’t prove past his sell-by date. Lingering traces of the persona that once riveted attention with its intellectual-hoodlum ways remain – and are played with, in a self-deprecating fashion. He flails about, as if in a one-man mosh-pit, and delivers snatches of his feral pop hit “’Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?” flashing manic grins, bopping his flabby 59-year-body like a crazy uncle going for it at a kids’ disco party.
But there’s enough that’s sufficiently different about his set, too, to suggest he could still have a future, beyond being cleverly ironic about who he once was.
The mellower Sayle that has emerged during his book-reading tours displays an amused perspective on the consumerist culture of today and where someone like himself, who has achieved success, might slot into all that; the old political certainties have departed – what kind of position can one strike?
Although he ranges seemingly at random from his ideal episode of Casualty, to his falling-out with Ben Elton, to the vapidity of Ed Miliband, it somehow feels like a coherent, confident world-view.
The big pity of it is that he leaves us wanting much more; because he’s acting as compère here, the guest comics (on the second of four Tuesdays we had the excellent Bridget Christie, Simon Munnery and Josie Long) dominate, when it should be Sayle’s night. It’s good to have the old Liverpudlian loudmouth back, but now he has dipped his toe in the water again, he really needs to take the full plunge.