11pm, Tue 19 Nov 2013, ADC Theatre
It ought to be hard to know what to think of Phil Wang, given that he seems so unsure of what he thinks of himself. Sure, the main body of his show is littered with self-deprecation: that smoking becomes less glamorous when he does it; that he hasn’t got the figure to be the ‘strong, silent type’; even a simple ‘maybe not’ after some of his material doesn’t get the reaction he was hoping for. But by the end he’s reading a sycophantic interview with himself in the Guardian Weekend segment, where he’s an international Parkour champion and the recipient of multiple Nobel Prizes for Comedy. And this from a man who was hesitant to describe himself as a ‘rising star’. Whatever next?
What’s next is the impossibly assured slightly-over-an-hour debut from the former Footlights President, as opened to rave reviews at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. With a CV including numerous prizes for Best Student Comedian I’m sure there must have been at least a few people who were indeed highly anticipating this show, despite what Wang said to the contrary. For all his time away from Cambridge he clearly still feels just as comfortable on the ADC stage as ever, opening at a slow, relaxed pace, and slots right back into daily life in the bubble by taking a pop at the Tab.
Political correctness is perhaps not top of his priorities, segueing effortlessly from Anne Frank to the Pope to Nazis. Whilst it might be tempting to lump this is with every other comic that’s ever tried to make risqué jokes, the fact that he announces it at the beginning of the show makes it an integral structural part, rather than – what it might have been – a man a bit over-excited to says some naughty things on stage. Wang made the shortlist for ‘Best Joke of the Fringe’ for his likening of the Pope to Doctor Who, but reducing his best routines to a single line in print is to lose the whole essence of them. His ability to create such a realistic sense of dialogue is unparalleled; his fusion of observation and imagination is unique (I’ve never heard a laugh so big for a mime routine as that for ‘the forgetful red pen’); and, while the huge majority of his set is funny, a simple nod of his head, roll of his eyes or wave of his hand can send the whole audience into laughter. Everything is controlled, and everything he does is a reaction to the audience – but so effortlessly, you’d never guess.
Time on the circuit will only be kind to Phil Wang. When he embellishes, his writing technique and delivery are close to perfect. In the future, I’d like to see a greater separation between person and persona. But then maybe Wang would realise exactly how good he is, and a show as varied as Anti-Hero would never have been born.