Mark Steel's in Town
Cambridge Junction, J2, Friday 8th March 2013, 7pm
Cambridge was peeing with rain, and a pitifully bike-less trek down Hills Road culminated in what was undoubtedly an industrial estate. Fitting then, that Mark Steel's In Town is all about how our great cities have become identikit monstrosities run in the interests of big business. Designed, if you could call it that, on orders from high command.
Inside Cambridge Junction, we awaited the comedy legend in front of a huge photo of a cheekily grinning Steel standing outside of the Round Church. The man who will pull no punches with the establishment seemed perilously close to what is arguably Cambridge's most oppressively elite institution - not the church itself of course, but the building behind. I struggled to come to terms with the aesthetics of the arts space until about half-way through the show when Steel offered the answer. "It's a bit like a prison, this place, isn't it? I feel a bit Johnny Cash here."
The comedian, writer, Independent columnist and socialist has been touring the country from Dumfries to Basingstoke, making the case for finding something unique and heartening in our towns in spite of the screwing-over they've faced at the hands of the elite.
Cambridge might seem like an odd choice for a show about the blandness and pointlessness of so much in twenty-first century life. "Comics in Cambridge are always especially nice," Steel opened, "because we know that in ten years time someone in the room will be running the f***ing BBC."
What followed was hilariously random, ranging from an impression of a DJ Tony Benn to a comic argument that jobs are being stolen by Poles, but by the Battle of Britain pilots and the early French Catholic diaspora in Winchester. "Don't hear English anymore - all bloody Latin round here now!"
He then turned to the most bizarre oddities in which British towns invest their pride. In Gateshead, it's the carpark from Get Carter. Yes, chosen because of its uniquely ugly status. One town featured a legend by the name of Torquin the Skullsplitter. In one of a series of quotes from obscure bits of local literature, he quoted: "Little is known of Torquin, other than that from his name he is believed to have been violent." Steel is fascinated by the brilliance of understatement.
And Cambridge, ah, Cambridge. Steel was asked on Twitter to give hell to the Cambridge cyclists, but instead he gave it to those who give cyclists hell. He recounted an exchange when he waved at a motorist from his bike in London, who commented: "I pay road tax. You, pay F*** OFF!" Audience contributions were plentiful, notably from a proud contingent from Arbury. Mid-cycling rant, for about the fifth time, "What about Arbury?" "What about Arbury?" retorted Steel. "If you cycle through there do you come out with all your bits missing?"
Steel's common-sense socialism is extraordinarily apt to our age of austerity and fear: there's plenty of sharp analysis, but sometimes the casual swipes are the best. Mid-stream on why he loves Andy Murray, he quotes a friend: "If it meant that Murray could win the next game, would you have it off with Eric Pickles?" To which he replied: "I'd want the whole set for that!"
There were plenty of grey hairs in the pit, but two under-20s were still constantly gripped, when not rocking about with laughter. And aside from everything else, there are plenty of nastier people to spend a rainy night with than Mark Steel.