Russell Brand on the The Jonathan Ross Show in advance of his new touring show, Exposed. Photograph: Hotsauce/Rex Shutterstock
It feels like another age, that still-recent time when Russell Brand’s message of political enlightenment was set to deliver the youth vote to Labour and Ed Miliband into Downing Street. That’s not how it panned out, and Brand retreated to lick his wounds.
Now, he emerges from hibernation (and new fatherhood) in dismay at what’s gone wrong since. But this new touring show is no return to the political frontline: Exposed is a reflective piece, reliving Brand’s moment of political centrality and questioning whether change could ever have been effected by hobnobbing with politicians and submitting to trial by Paxman.
But first, Brand celebrates the eccentricities of his audience. We’ve been invited to respond to his questionnaire in advance, soliciting our greatest embarrassments or proudest sexual moments. Brand shares the predictably lurid highlights of this vox pop, to demonstrate (he tells us) that we’re all much weirder than dull demographic statistics suggest. It’s a microcosm of the show’s wider point, that we live under systems that caricature us, but that we’re all infinitely complex, each of us a compound of myriad alternative versions of ourselves.
Among those systems are politics and the media, into whose grinder Brand was sucked around the 2015 election. On the one hand, this show channels the cheerful narcissism of pre-political era Brand. He shows us videos of his Newsnight interview, his Miliband pow-wow and an appearance on Question Time, in each case mocking his own mood swings or bizarre piratical mannerisms. It’s funny, but a bit forced: the clips aren’t always as bizarre as Brand’s self-consciousness, or self-absorption, would have us believe.
I’d have welcomed less self-mockery, more analysis of how the establishment got to grips with this would-be revolutionary. There’s a stab at that here, as Brand tries to illustrate a lesson about the systemic inertia of British politics – but it doesn’t quite work. I’d like to hear more about why Question Time can never (as he says) be a vessel for truth, or at least, for his brand of truth. I’m sympathetic to his claims that our media and political systems reinforce the status quo, but tonight’s footage suggests less that the formats are flawed or fixed than that Brand simply (and understandably) failed to master them.
There’s no indication of where Brand’s political journey might lead next. It’s all retrospective: Brexit, for example, is never mentioned. But if Exposed suggests he’s lost a little political confidence, he’s as swaggering a showman as ever: leather-trousered, legs widely man-spread, working the crowd like he owns them (although a closing stunt, in which he plays Cupid to a lovelorn punter, goes queasily wrong.) He hits fewer heights of comic craftsmanship than in past shows: a section on a teenage report card is weak; banter about married people in the crowd sounding jaded is hack. More vivid is a droll earlier roleplay of his anti-depression drugs struggling to gain a foothold in a Brand brain already noisily inhabited by crack and heroin.
It’s good to have him back, in short – even if this is minor Brand. They may not receive their most potent expression here, but underpinning this celebration of oddity and gleeful self-abasement, Brand’s radical-idealist worldview and refusal to stay in his box are as enlivening, and occasionally as funny, as ever.