Returning to Coventry with his new show, What Is This?, Simon Amstell was back on the stage in the wake of the publication of his book, Help. With a searingly honest set, this was undoubtedly a show of two very different halves.
First up was support act Mawaan Rizwan, who entertained with a combination of songs, stand-up and clowning. In a short set strewn with some deftly-written jokes, it was hard to escape the idea that this presented a stark contrast in tone with what was to follow, but Rizwan – a talented performer who clearly knows how to work a room – was more than up to the task of providing a strong start to the show.
Amstell is happily in a long-term relationship, but this certainly hasn’t diminished his capacity for forensic introspection, which he’s long used to acute comic effect. Covering subjects such as his sexuality, his relationship with his family (particularly his father), and doomed romantic (mis)adventures, this was a witty, erudite insight into his existential state of mind.
His quality as a writer and a performer, honed during unforgettable TV turns on Popworld and Never Mind the Buzzcocks as well as previous stand-up shows, was clearly evident, but there was something about What Is This? which ultimately felt a little lightweight compared with his best work. At barely an hour, it too often felt like a loose collection of stories – albeit expertly-delivered – rather than a rounded show with a strong through-line.
Shining brightest during some brief interactions with the audience, he seemed at his most relaxed when venturing off-script, though there were some brilliant lines and observations during the hour, underlining his sharp eye and often glorious turns of phrase. This was a real curio of a show, but a sign that Amstell still has plenty to say.