An opulent cityscape protrudes against the night sky, pricking away at the stars like bourgeois bayonets. The pervading stench of hotdogs and gentrification stagnates in the air. I can be in only one place: New York City.
Beneath the fluorescent lights of the Apollo Theatre, a perpetual queue of patrons stretches far beyond the reach of the human eye. I am currently enduring the crowds in order to review the debut stand-up comedy show of a man who, according to his press release, has combined “the ferocious wit of Lenny Bruce with the efficiency of Microsoft Excel”.
Eventually, we are ushered inside the theatre and directed to our seats. Withstanding a barrage of tedious opening acts, the compere finally returns to the stage to introduce the main act.
“Please put your hands together for the man who puts the fine in finance; the x in exchequer; the one, the only: Philip ‘The Spreadsheet’ Hammond!”
The Chancellor of the Exchequer emerges from stage left, adorned in a red leather jumpsuit à la Eddie Murphy circa 1983. He exchanges a well-rehearsed fist bump with the compere, before removing the microphone from its stand.
“How we all feeling?” Hammond enthusiastically asks the audience. The crowd responds with an encouraging whoop.
“Gosh, I have so much comedic material, if only there were a way to organise such data. Perhaps a spreadsheet!” exclaims a grinning Hammond to an audience unaware of the punchline’s significance.
The microphone feedbacks violently.
“Tough crowd. Now I know how Norman Lamont felt.”
The audience is unresponsive.
“You are all familiar with the former Chancellor, Norman Lamont?”
This is painful.
“Oxbridge bumbaclot!” a voice heckles from the crowd.
“Forgive me, I’m unfamiliar with that particular colloquialism,” explains Hammond, sweating profusely amidst the growing tension and poor wardrobe decisions.
A disapproving murmur begins to spread throughout the room.
“Listen, I don’t have to justify my comedy to a bunch of bloody hicks,” Hammond snaps.
With his act now in flames, Hammond stares vacantly into the audience, our eyes meeting momentarily. I have gazed into The Spreadsheet and The Spreadsheet has gazed back.
The silence is broken by a beer bottle exploding onstage, narrowly missing the Chancellor. The compere returns to bundle the disgraced Spreadsheet to the safety of the greenroom.
Hours later, after the last splinters of glass have been swept away and the mass refunds have been issued, I spot a defeated Hammond sitting alone at the bar, his beaky exterior reminiscent of a morose toucan.
Taking a seat alongside the artist formerly known as The Spreadsheet, I order a glass of merlot.
“Do you think it was a good idea?” Hammond asks, without turning.
“The jacket? I’ll be honest, it was an odd choice,” I reply.
“Not the jacket. The act, you peasant. The act!”
Sensing the tension, the bartender brings over my glass.
“Ugh, I promise I will never drink again,” Hammond declares, immediately lifting the glass to his lips, before backtracking.
Hammond drunkenly swivels the barstool to face me.
“You agree that I am a comic genius, no?”
I take a nervous sip of wine, hoping he will change the subject. He doesn’t.
“I mean, the jacket’s not essential, is it? Perhaps forego it next time?” I respond.
“Next time,” sighs Hammond, slumping back onto the bar. “But why? Why didn’t their shoulders convulse in spasmodic guffaws like the Prime Minister’s? Why didn’t they laugh?”
“It just wasn’t funny, Philip. I’m sorry.”
Taking a final gulp of wine, I offer a sympathetic pat on the Chancellor’s back, making a mental note to wash my hand at the next opportunity, before slinking out of the theatre’s fire exit to make sense of the omnishambles that was the preceding evening.
Were comparisons between the late Lenny Bruce and Philip Hammond fair? The overwhelmingly negative reaction to his Netflix special would indicate not. However, even this reception was eclipsed by Hammond’s attempt in his Spring Budget to break the Conservative manifesto promise against raising national insurance, which could indicate that both career paths may prove equally ephemeral.
But if all else fails, he can get a job as editor of the London Evening Standard. I hear they’ll hire anyone.Zachary Freeman