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BOOKS: Tim Key - Live Review
Laurie Tuffrey , November 30th, 2012 05:58

Laurie Tuffrey takes a seat in the strange and beleaguered mind of the stand-up poet, temporarily located in London's Arts Theatre

Tim Key - The Masterslut
Arts Theatre, London, Thursday 22 November

While it seems trite to say it, the genius of Tim Key's stand-up is in the words. Yes, they’re the lifeblood of, well, almost every stand-up comic’s routine, but given that the bedrock of Key’s show The Masterslut is his trademark poetic fragments, his count for more, making much of less.

Actually, he opens the show, in its final run at the Arts Theatre last week, with a bit of physical comedy, appearing on a balcony, then watching as his next steps are gradually mapped out on a plan of the theatre projected on screen. He accordingly kisses, clambers across, splashes (the onstage bath - more of which later) and feeds a sugarlump to the audience, before the opening proper, poem number one: "An ox... an ox... an ox... why had she bought me an ox?"

From hereon, he moves through his hour-long set with almost free abandon, cultivating a miscellany of verse, film and debate on ablutionary habit. Key’s delivery is that of a kindly schizophrenic, muttering into the mic now, barking at the audience then. And it’s strangely inviting; his world is one where oneupmanship involves wrongfooting the sleazy shop owner who gives a wink and a “I know what you’ve got planned” when he sells Key a pack of pornographic playing cards by going home and laminating four-line poems onto them.

The bathtub (brimming with soapy suds, no less...) becomes the leaping-off point for a fine bit of audience interaction; he makes his feelings clear from the start, thwacking the bath with his ever-present pointer and declaring “I love a bath!” before striking up a conversation with crowd members to see if they enjoy using “Robert Radox” too. It’s also the staging-ground for some brilliantly overproduced - given that elsewhere, the show essentially comprises a man and a pack of cards - films, including a slow-motion shot of a can of Ruddles descending into watery fathoms, which lends a previously undefined poignancy to waterborne ale.

He’s an old hand with the poems, having first started barding early on in his live shows, and appearing on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe with them, and it gets reflected in their concise panache. “Here’s a poem that’s finally prepared to tackle the thorny issue of love” he prefaces one, while another features some sly subversion: "Robert went back to his fit wife… you underestimated Robert didn't you?" In the wrong hands it wouldn’t have carried or, worse, would have sounded like blinkered lad-speak. Instead, Key’s delivery means that he can say this, as well as later referring to his brother as a “complete legend”, and sound charming, even sweet.

A mid-set high comes when Key makes the front row write a story, contributing one word each, made all the better since the basic rules of syntax seemed to escape every one of them. “Elephant” offers the first man, prompting Key to speculate on the underused economy that comes from dispensing with articles - “a... ‘a’-fucking-what, Dickens?!” - followed by “castle” and then “went”. “Oh great, so now our protagonist is called Elephant Castle...” comes Key’s rejoinder.

Things get a little laboured when he makes a mammoth run through 45 drafts of one of his poems, but this is the final leg, building to a deliberately (and brilliantly) bathetic close. By turns congenial and cutting, and the single-minded source for countless imitators, Key is a balneary delight.