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2002 Reviews

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 £5.

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 Intervention

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 in Afghanistan.

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 achievement.

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 imperialism.

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.

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From The Guardian, with much thanks to Lucy
Reviewed by Brian Logan
Friday, 22 November 2002

Robert Newman
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 aberration.

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 flair.

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 difference.

· In rep until February 3. Box office: 020-7478 0100.

From The Guardian, 24 November 2002 Comedy: The Critical List
Stephen Armstrong Robert Newman

Sharp-tongued, satirical version of world history, from a 1609 Bermuda shipwreck to today’s America, taking humanitarian intervention as its theme. Gag-laden, although admittedly this write-up might suggest otherwise.
Soho Theatre, W1, Wed

From The Times, 13 December 2002
by Clive Davis
Much thanks to mysterious person #27

Robert Newman. Soho theatre

star starstar

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 to keep
us distracted. Newman constantly throws in neatly turned anachronisms: Johnny Rotten surfaces as a Jacobean ne'er-do-well being shipped to the New World.

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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