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From The Evening Standard, 26 September 2002
Comedy Choice by Bruce Dessau
Robert Newman More agitprop in W1. His latest show, From Caliban To The
Taliban - 500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention, is astute stuff, though
some advance reading might help fans appreciate the neo-globalist gags.
Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, W1 (020 7478 0100), 8pm, £10, concs
From The Evening Standard, 7 November 2002
Reviewed by Bruce Dessau
Intelligent, daring comedy
Robert Newman - From Caliban to the Taliban - 500 Years of Humanitarian
Is the world ready for a cross between Eric Hobsbawm and Mike Yarwood?
If so, Robert Newman fits the bill. His current show, From Caliban to
Taliban - 500 Years Of Humanitarian Intervention, is as cerebral as comedy
dares and then some. It also boasts a spot-on, petulant Johnny Rotten
and the most oleaginous Tony Blair this side of Rory Bremner.
Newman made his name as a pin-up stand-up, peaking with a historic Wembley
gig alongside David Baddiel. But success did not sit easily on his Cambridge-educated
shoulders. He rediscovered his political roots and Rob became Robert,
just as Debbie Harry became Deborah when she wanted to be taken seriously.
For a while the new Newman became too bogged down in antiglobalist rhetoric
to reach his punchlines, but here he sees the bigger picture and remembers
the payoffs. Conspiracy theories are backed by facts. Shakespeare had
shares in companies that colonised Virginia, American armed forces have
seen action abroad every year since 1611 apart from 1892. There is also
a brilliant setpiece about Sherlock Holmes meeting Watson after a spell
Newman's major problem is that in 75 minutes he barely starts. Most comedians
think they are being political if they drop the occasional reference to
11 September. For the sober-suited Newman this is virtually incidental,
referred to as "them two planes". Whenever he comes close to
being too earnest he adds a concise little impression, maybe Joe Strummer
or a Chechen rebel, to remind everyone that this is not a rally.
At times the work feels like a lecture, particularly when Newman mutters
to himself donnishly or refers to notes, but when he hits his stride,
there is no stopping him. This rarefied brand of satire will never fill
Wembley, but it fills heads with ideas and that is a much more profound
From Metro, by Dominic Maxwell
12 November 2002
A little bit of politics
Robert Newman is still best known, no doubt to his chagrin, as half of
the team that brought us the History Today sketches. But now the Baddiel-free
comic-cum-novelist-cum-activist is using real historical analysis as the
cornerstone of his new show, a 90-minute rubbishing of British and American
Ambitious? Just a bit. There's enough material in this work-in-progress
to fuel the careers of a VW camper van full of political comedians. But
the sparks of genuine comic discovery here make this a stimulating evening
all the same.
We learn about 1892 - Oliver Hardy was born, the fig roll was invented
and, for the first and last time, the United States didn't invade another
country. Want to destabilise a regime? Block the toilets - one of a variety
of ludicrous CIA tips. How about this: US investment in Germany rose almost
50 per cent in Hitler's first 11 years in power. No time to linger on
these, though - there's Sir Francis Bacon's torture habit to discuss.
Compelling stuff - when the mic-less Newman is not mumbling so softly
that his voice hardly reaches the front row - but it's a right old mess.
And it's telling that the biggest laugh of the night came for an uncanny
Johnny Rotten impersonation. If he could blend his sillier side with the
knottier material, he could make something as popular as it is provocative.
Once Newman has figured out which 20 per cent of his show to keep and
develop, it could really be something.
to the top
From The Guardian, with much thanks to Lucy
Reviewed by Brian Logan
Friday, 22 November 2002
Soho Theatre, London
You'd never guess that Rob Newman was a veteran of the mightiest comedy
gigs of the 1990s. The erstwhile floppyhaired catchphrase king has travelled
a long way, thank goodness, from David Baddiel and Wembley Arena.
At these weekly gigs in Soho Theatre's studio, he looks as he has barely
stepped on stage before. But the scatty manner belies a serious intent.
Newman aims with this work-in-progress set to review half a millennium
of capitalist expansion and western-powerplay. See? You're laughing already.
Newman signals his purpose with an uncommercial title - From Caliban
to the Taliban: 500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention. And one of the
pleasures of his lecture-cum-gig is that it teems with interesting information.
He starts by recounting the 1609 colonisation of Virginia, which Newman
sees as a milestone in commercial imperialism (and in which Shakespeare
had a financial stake). He quotes copiously from primary sources; the
show wears its research on its sleeve. Later, Newman tells us that there
has been only one year since 1798 that the US hasn't invaded another country
- then catalogues the events of that year, 1892, seeking to explain the
It's fascinating stuff, and offers a timely corrective to the oh-so-ethical
bellicosity of Bush and Blair. (Newman reminds us that the US won't let
UN inspectors anywhere near its own chemical weapons.) Every joke chips
away at the delusion that rampant capitalism and morality are in any way
compatible. But Newman is just as funny when he side-steps politics: his
best line imagines Richard Burton's response when hearing, the 1970s,
that he had been banned by the BBC.
If there's a problem, it is that Newman has too many facts to impart.
They are weighing him down: he spends much of the gig pacing to and fro
with an expression of concentration furrowed into his face. And struggling
to remember everything. "So this is why people have rehearsals?"
he says to his technician after one slip-up. The show's impact will heighten
when Newman begins to make his points more pithily, and with more theatrical
But it is heartening (and rare) to see a stand-up who uses humour to
elucidate a progressive world-view. I only hope Newman is right when he
guesses that, as Hollywood brainwashes millions every day, one shambling
stand-up preaching the truth to 80 people per week may still make a little
· In rep until February 3. Box office: 020-7478 0100.
From The Guardian, 24 November 2002
Comedy: The Critical List
Sharp-tongued, satirical version of world history, from a 1609 Bermuda
shipwreck to todays America, taking humanitarian intervention as
its theme. Gag-laden, although admittedly this write-up might suggest
Soho Theatre, W1, Wed
From The Times, 13 December 2002
by Clive Davis
Much thanks to mysterious person #27
Robert Newman. Soho theatre
TWO personalities go to war in this fusion of stand-up and public lecture.
Fans of Robert Newman from his days with David Baddiel will be glad to
learn that his wit is as sharp as ever. His alter ego, on the other hand,
is a passionate revolutionary who wants to abolish war, poverty and oppression
-all, if possible, before catching the last Tube home.
A latterday A. J. P. Taylor, he crams an awful lot of erudition into
a new show bearing the unwieldy title From Caliban to the Taleban -500
Years of Humanitarian Intervention. Five Hundred Years of Western Wickedness
would be an even better way to sum up the contents, since Newman embarks
on a route march that takes us from the first colonial settlements in
Virginia to globalisation and military dictatorships in Central America.
You may just catch a fleeting reference to the horrors of the Soviet
Union and Nazi Germany (and Newman does not have much time for new Labour
either) but for the most part there is only one villain in this piece,
and that is, of course, Uncle Sam. Like an accomplished lawyer, Newman
selects every possible scrap of incriminating evidence.
Pick out one sentence from a policy paper, for example -it took me one
minute to track it down on the Web -and you can do what Newman has done
and portray the Cold War thinker George Kennan as an amoral brute. No
room for shades of grey here. When Newman tries to debunk Winston Churchill,
even Newman's loyal audience must sense that he is overplaying his hand.
He has so much information to impart that the performance loses its thread
around the halfway point. Fortunately, there is a lot of polished humour
us distracted. Newman constantly throws in neatly turned anachronisms:
Johnny Rotten surfaces as a Jacobean ne'er-do-well being shipped to the
Pacing the floor, scratching his head, sipping water to keep a sore throat
at bay, Newman generally manages to wear all this learning very lightly.
Even if you disagree with him, he still engages the brain, which is more
than can be said of that other radical barnstormer, Michael Moore.
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