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Review: Dr John Cooper Clarke, Stratford Play House, 10th October

Steve Sutherland reviews Dr John Cooper Clarke

According to recent research conducted by Dr John Cooper Clarke, there are three upsides to having Alzheimer’s.

The first is you get to meet new people every day.

The second is you get to hide your own Easter eggs.

John Cooper Clarke (47510654)
John Cooper Clarke (47510654)

The good doctor is in Stratford keeping an appointment rearranged once, maybe twice – he can’t remember – due to Covid. He says he’s only here because he owes his tour manager a favour. Seems the tour manager stepped in to save him from a brutal beating at the hands of a gang of ruffians. Apparently, the tour manager said: “That’s enough now lads.”

Happily, JCC is on fine form, of sorts, so all-over-the-place it’s hard to tell whether he’s seriously starting to lose the plot or just playing up to his legendary wasted reputation. On tonight’s evidence, it’s probably a bit of both. Pretty much right from the off, he’s promoting his scarecrow-cum-Steerpike caricature. “I guess you can see I’ve put on weight,” he quips, skinny as a whip, clothes-hanger thin as he’s ever been. Then he wanders off on a tangent or two – I think snow leopards are involved – until he rediscovers his traincrash of thought and delivers some bone-dry verse about how your weight yo-yos when you decide to abstain from the non-prescription opiates.

This, of course, would be perfectly crowd-pleasing grist to the mill if it wasn’t for the fact that the good doctor’s addressing us all in a fake Noo-Yawk accent reminiscent, in all its exaggerated inaccuracy, of Noel Fielding’s Chief Boombox from the late, lamented Luxury Comedy.

Later, before delivering Evidently Chickentown, the doctor will explain that he’s particularly proud of this poem because it got an airing at the end of an episode of The Sopranos. Bearing this in (his) addled mind might possibly account for his cod-Big Apple brogue but actually what happens is it just gives him free rein to indulge in a bout of awful Joe Pesci impersonations. Pesci, of course, was never a Soprano. Go figure.

Tonight’s set is deliciously accident-prone – the mic stand misbehaves and the book he’s reading his lyrics from is slung across a table, spilling a glass of suspicious-looking liquid. It’s a comfy hotch-potch of new and old – the ancient warhorse Beasley Street followed by its remix, Beasley Boulevard, a flimsy attack on gentrification. The old stuff’s a nostalgic blast, the new not so hot – I Fell In Love With My Wife and something about a girl with a metal plate in her head not really near bullseyes.

All the verse is delivered in a speedy monotone which renders every other sentence incomprehensible, an attitudinal disregard for the sanctity of the material much akin to the way his hero, Bob Dylan, is wont to torture his back catalogue when he plays it live. Some find this artistically bold, others merely annoying.

Truth be told, the real-life utter madness of 2021 renders Clarkey rather twee these days, the razor-keen observations and sharpness of tongue that once saw him embraced as the premier punk rock poet of his generation has softened its focus over the decades. Today’s version of JCC is more of a lovable meanderer than a social satirist and the doctor seems happy enough with that, leaving support act Mike Garry to sharpen the knives.

Obviously an acolyte of JCC, Garry’s another Manc with a broken heart of gold. He ushers us in with a beautiful poem about refugee children drowning, moves onto cancer in the family and the advice his mum gave him (“Always drive a Nissan car”), celebrates a loving teacher who taught English at school, struggles to understand his kids posting porno selfies and tells us how much he misses his son who’s moved away (“To the Isle Of Man. No. New Zealand”).

He’s angry, bemused, hopeful and deeply sentimental and we like him an awful lot, especially when he skewers the macho yobbish closing-time boors – just about the only species, sadly not endangered, that aren’t currently under woke protection.

Oddly, the good doctor sails a little close to the woke wind himself with a few old school wife jokes near the end of a set that’s nicely encored with Twat, before which he tells us he believes everybody has somebody they’d like to murder, and offers the ode as a balm. “Think of me as a Shaman, like Jim Morrison, only more sexy.” He ends with I Wanna Be Yours which, of course, Arctic Monkeys did extremely proud.

Oh yeah, the third upside to Alzheimer’s? You get to meet new people every day.

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