Fashions in comedy ebb and flow. Standup is hip now but it wasn’t always. Character acts were all the rage at the turn of the millennium, with successive Perrier awards won by Al Murray’s Pub Landlord, Rich Hall’s alter ego Otis Lee Crenshaw and Matthew Holness as Garth Marenghi. It’s a few years since the Edinburgh comedy award offered so much as a nomination to character comedy – an activity that (Barbara Nice on Britain’s Got Talent notwithstanding) is in abeyance. But then you see an act like Rob Carter’s, and the prospects revive for an artform that has given us so many indelible comic personas.
Carter’s alter ego is Christopher Bliss, a delusional would-be novelist from Shropshire. Lank of hair and turquoise of windcheater, he lives with his mum and writes very inelegant prose. His idea of a novel is one that can be read (and probably written) in five minutes flat. Tonight’s example – it’s called Absolutely Wow – is “a raunchy one”, he tells us, about an encounter in a hotel lobby with a femme fatale. There’s a simile comparing her lips and teeth to two big dollops of ketchup and 32 smaller dollops of mayo. Smouldering, it really isn’t.
But it’s funny. The Bliss character is cut from durable comic cloth. A chasm yawns – as it so often does – between self-image and reality. He has no self-awareness whatsoever: this isn’t an act that trades in the David Brent-style bathos that comes when the delusional begin to sense how they’re actually perceived. Bliss gets no such glimpse. He thinks he’s the greatest writer who ever lived. He assumes your admiration, and if he can’t hear it, that’s because it’s drowned out by the sound of him congratulating himself. He’s naive, cheerful, unflaggingly positive and very lovable.
Carter himself is an ex-Footlights man with bit-part credits in Peep Show and Fresh Meat. The show (it’s called I Spy With My Little Eye Something Beginning With Why Have You Been Sleeping With My Wife: A Play by Christopher Bliss) is his third in the character. With the same persona he also hosts an occasional literary salon, interviewing real writers about their work. But I Spy is more theatrical than literary: Bliss has been introduced to the concept of the “play”, and can’t wait to give it a try – with help from Clun Players veteran Frederick (Ryan Lane) and bashful neighbour Janet (Joanna Griffin). We’re in familiar spoof am-dram territory here, as Bliss’s tale of adultery and postage-stamp rivalry in rural England is conjured with wooden acting, crap multi-roling and a star performer who can barely conceal his delight at being centre-stage.
In that – but not only that – Bliss brings to mind Nick Mohammed’s alter ego Mr Swallow, the pre-eminent live character act of the last half-decade and another maestro of overreaching egotistical theatre. You might equally detect a whiff of Garth Marenghi, the spirit of whose comically leaden phrasing is repeatedly summoned here. “Emails? Telford? You’re living in a dream world!”, our hero gets told, and elsewhere: “You can kill my friend or sleep with my wife – but don’t you dare do both!”
It’s too early to finger Bliss as the next Partridge. It’d be a stretch to call the character fully formed, even if the mannerisms are deliciously fun, and the catchphrases (“Ruddy hell!”) infectious. And there’s no knowing which characters will take root in the public consciousness. I’d have predicted great things for Jeremy Lion – but I never saw (the excellent) Count Arthur Strong breaking out of his niche. And look at him now! But the very least Bliss promises is another green shoot of recovery for live character comedy, at a time when Ciarán Dowd’s Don Rodolfo, Jon Pointing’s Cayden Hunter, Emma Sidi’s various characters and Damien Warren-Smith’s Garry Starr are all hatching personae that could, in time, rival the John Shuttleworths, Lauren Coopers and Pub Landlords that went before them.
I Spy With My Little Eye Something Beginning With Why Have You Been Sleeping With My Wife: A Play by Christopher Bliss is at Soho theatre, London, until 27 April