Struggling to adjust as pandemic restrictions end? Don’t worry, Tim Key has created a “cheeky little locky-D” in Soho theatre and we’re all invited. He paces the room in a blue velour tracksuit, as the audience files into his pseudo-flat, a shabby front door to the left of us, a magnet-covered fridge to the right.
It is brave to dedicate an entire show to Covid-19 lockdowns. During them, livestreamed comedy gigs were naturally packed with Covid content – increasingly familiar stuff about video calls, social distancing and home-based hobbies. To extract an hour of solid, even surprising, laughs from such well-trodden ground requires skill. Key delivers with his trademark knowing grin.
Key is probably best known for irreverent, surreal poetry (on stage, on Radio 4 and in print) and being the shambolic yet prideful auteur who delivers it. Fans will not be disappointed. “Who here did lockdown?” he bellows. In March 2020, Key had “voiceovers coming out my arse … Pointless Celebrities sniffing around”, when lockdown arrived. “My fame falling off me like slow-cooked lamb dribbling from a shin,” he laments.
Mulberry is “the story of a celebrity sealed away”, charting Key’s professional crisis, through an escalating thirst for craft beer and surprise appearances on TV quizshows. His lockdown companion, a five-foot teddy bear, stars in a handful of the funniest punchlines, while mentions of his past glories become a pleasing refrain.
Key’s gift, the reason his shows always have great pace, is his poetry. He balances the swift and silly (“‘Get your jabs, you useless cunts!’ No one had ever seen the Queen like this before”), with more languorous, even poignant, prose. Whenever we veer towards pandemic tropes, there’s a poem to redirect us.
His onstage persona (crumpled clothing, lager, anger) is established enough that he can play with it. Lockdown has replaced his customary suit with loungewear. He’s softer than in previous shows; he bonds with an audience member. It is part of Mulberry’s unfolding narrative: lockdown may have crushed dreams of becoming “a household name”, but being back on stage, “the poet” once again, is where he belongs.