James Acaster, ‘Recognise’ (with support from Stuart Laws), The Lowry, September 21 2014
At first, the flyer for James Acaster’s new show ‘Recognise’ unnerved me. From his solemn look you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a brooding solo musician rather than a stand-up. Aren’t successful comics supposed to smile on their flyers or be in the middle of some wacky action? And Acaster is certainly successful: the Kettering comic has made appearances on numerous BBC Three and Dave shows as well as a regular slot on Xfm’s The Josh Widdicombe Show. For me and many others, listening to the affectionately dubbed “Scrapemaster” recount his life’s apparently endless series of farcical mishaps comprised one of the chief reasons to tune into Widdicombe’s show. With ticket and perplexing flyer in hand, I pulled myself away from the cold sunset over Salford Quays and entered the Lowry.
The evening began with support from Stuart Laws, who had the unenviable task of pumping up a rather timid assembly of middle class faces. Laws ribbed those intrepid (or simply late) enough to sit on the front rows and launched into a fast-paced round of audience participation: “Show of hands if you’ve brought a German with you, show of hands, show of hands if you’d like to measure a horse, show of hands”. Laws got the momentum going but twenty-five minutes can be an awkward duration for a stand-up set, and he was unable to settle comfortably on a particular register. Material ranged from a Stewart Lee style rant about spiders getting their “little spider trotters” inside glasses, to considerations of blindness versus colour-blindness and ruminations on the correct way to eat a Kinder Egg (Laws’ suggestion is to swallow them whole in order to achieve altogether different kind of surprise). If slightly jarring in their juxtaposition, Laws’ energetic musings were always well-observed and left the crowd hungry for more.
After theatrical entrance music Acaster triumphantly took to the stage on his knees. This, he explained, was a crafty move inspired by no less than Torvil and Dean, who once kept their skates from actually touching the ice in order to cheat the start timer. Before standing, and the “official” start of the show, the blazer-wearing comic managed to collar a late-comer attempting to nip across the stage. Holding on to the hand of the mortified and understandably perspiring crowd member throughout his intro, Acaster established his unique persona: an air of nonchalant unflappability mixed with good-natured bemusement at the world’s oddness.
Stand-ups can sometimes lose faith in the potential of their ideas, often before such ideas make it on stage. After a strong set-up or astute observation a comic can resort to the low-hanging fruit mid-routine, mistaking wacky non-sequitur for surrealism or profanity for intensity. By contrast, Acaster’s routines display a commitment to considered development and refinement. There is a constant sense of playful confidence, of letting the logic of ideas (such as Pythagoras’s frustration at not being able to establish his catchphrase) unfold with elegant hilarity. Starting with a subject as simple as the taste of Dr Pepper, the stand-up turns the objects of his scrutiny over and over, always ensuring that the audience is in full view of the joke’s multiple dimensions. ‘Recognise’ is punctuated by Acaster’s insistence that he is not actually a stand-up but an undercover cop posing as a stand-up, an idea which a lesser comic might not exploit to its full potential. This slow-burner is not only called back throughout the show but skilfully developed with references to his ball-breaking Chief (similarly undercover as a comedy promoter), Dictaphone recordings of his inept infiltrations and the surprise production of a magnifying glass from a blazer pocket.
As it reaches its later stages ‘Recognise’ matures from a consummate yet light-hearted performance to one with hints of something deeper. A good example is a later routine about putting your head in a “picture-you-put-your-head-in” at the seaside and attempting to take a selfie. Acaster’s repetition of that awkward phrase (for which there really is no alternative) heightens the existential absurdity of the situation without becoming laboured. All of the show’s seemingly disparate musings are threaded together by the themes of identity and recognition, the uncanny yet daily task of make sense of ourselves and those around us: Who, he asks, has not sat up next to their slumbering partner at night and wondered to themselves, “Who is the person?”. In self-reflexive fashion Acaster suggests how “loser-ish” it would be for a stand-up to impersonate an undercover cop rather than the other way round. Such a turn-around gives a well-structured show a sense of symmetry but also speaks to the performative oddity of stand-up itself; he alludes to this weirdness deftly rather than ignoring or attempting to speak over it.
Perhaps this is why looking back at the flyer now, I’m more comfortable with the comedian’s sober expression, the lack of a grin or double thumbs up. James Acaster is a stand-up with creativity, subtlety and charming idiosyncrasy; in a relatively young stand-up this is already more than enough, though I’m anxious to see a little more of the existential magic that occasionally flashes throughout ‘Recognise’.
 “Every triangle’s a love triangle, if you love triangles!”