Rhod Gilbert, The Book of John review, Hammersmith Apollo: Britain's crossest comic roars back in style

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Rhod Gilbert
Credit: Andrew Crowley

There’s a moment in Rhod Gilbert’s comeback show The Book of John when he complains that John (of whom more later) “used to get very angry about some very small things”. This is, Gilbert concedes, a little hypocritical of him. No gripe is too petty to inspire a heaven-rending rant from the Welsh comedian. He wages war on his grievances like a reborn Owen Glendower.

Gilbert’s gravelly roar is a sound that audiences have missed of late. It has been six years since his last stand-up tour, though he’s hardly been idle in that time, hosting various TV programmes – among them The Apprentice: You’re Fired!, BBC Wales’s long-running Work Experience, and Never Mind the Buzzcocks (until it was canned in 2015).

Career-wise, they’ve been six good years. But in his personal life, they have been calamitous. Five minutes into this show, Gilbert gives the crowd a quick precis: he learnt he is infertile while trying for a baby; his mother died “a horrible, lengthy death” from Alzheimer’s; his father had a heart attack and went blind; his aunt was struck down by a serious illness; he suffered a “mini-stroke” that left him unable to drive. Oh, and he’s just turned 50.

For some time now, it has been common to see British stand-ups treat tear-jerking as a shortcut to critical success (American comedians often complain about having to add a “sad bit” just to please the Brits). It is to Gilbert’s credit that he avoids this completely. This isn’t a show about his domestic tragedies; rather, it’s about John, the “thick as s---” driver he hired to ferry him around after his stroke. The comedian became so enamoured of John’s mauvais mots that he started recording their conversations – and their heated rows – in the titular book.

So, rather than expect any musings on mortality, we should “buckle in for a 40-minute argument about frozen prawns”. We don’t get all 40 minutes – thank the Lord – but that crustacean debate is a hilarious tour-de-force, and easily the highlight of the show.

As was the case with some of his previous work, The Book of John could use an edit; this is a baggy two hours, with a long riff on a visit to a fertility clinic that awkwardly straddles the interval. At the cavernous Hammersmith Apollo, Gilbert seemed nervous in the rather gabbled opening minutes, starting off too loud, too soon. But as soon as he had introduced his dim foil, a man with the “rare, fragile gift” of being wrong about absolutely everything, the show hit its stride.

John may have been unbearable as a chauffeur, but as a comic device he works marvellously. Any stupid one-liner can be attributed to his unintentional wit, while Gilbert prevents the tone from getting too heavy by claiming that he’s mentioning his personal difficulties only as “context” for John’s dunderheaded comments about those events. For instance, after he had a brain scan for a documentary about anxiety, Gilbert was unexpectedly diagnosed with ADD (a form of ADHD) and dyslexia. He was shaken, until John offered his own expert diagnosis: the dyslexia was probably to blame for the missing “H”.

There is another reason for the confessional material. On stage, Gilbert is flanked by banners for Stroke Association and United Against Dementia; a chunk of the ticket-price goes to those charities, and Gilbert is openly on an awareness-raising mission, using his set as an opportunity to reduce the stigma around not only those conditions, but also male infertility (the subject of another Gilbert-fronted documentary, forthcoming later this year).

Age has mellowed Gilbert, a little, and some fans might pine for the rants of yesteryear. At one point he references half a dozen of his best-known old observational routines (railway sandwiches, lost baggage, etc) in quick succession; it’s a little like hearing Paul McCartney play a one-minute Beatles medley, before going back into tracks from his new album. But even B-grade Gilbert is still a treat, especially on stage, where he has the space and time to work up a full head of steam. After an overlong absence, it's good to see him back on the road – particularly with John behind the wheel.

Rhod Gilbert: The Book of John is at the Eventim Apollo, London, tomorrow, and tours until December 13; rhodgilbertcomedian.com