No hotcake ever sold in greater quantity than tickets for Peter Kay’s new tour: at one stage in my own bid for access, I was numbered 450,000 in the online queue. It’s a fair bet, then, that Kay will break the record he himself set in 2010 for the biggest-selling standup tour of all time – 1.2 million people saw that show. But is all the fuss justified? And will the long wait for this new show, fraught with speculation about Kay’s health and the likelihood of him ever touring again, prove worthwhile?
If there was any doubt, it was dispelled the moment the slimmed-down 49-year-old stepped onstage at the Manchester Arena. The reception was long, loud and, for Kay, tear-jerking. He took a pause to settle himself: “How’m I supposed to do bloody comedy now?” Not much doubt, though, how Kay was going to do comedy. The two-hour show scarcely deviated from the everyman formula that has made him such a popular success. Some of it, indeed, was almost parodically formulaic, as the Bolton man riffed on modern technology (“What did we do before Amazon? Catalogues!”), led a singalong of 1970s advertising jingles, and gave his famous “garlic bread” routine an Italian makeover.
But for all that, it didn’t come across as just another Peter Kay show. It has a more reflective air: the first half found Kay reminiscing on the dead-end jobs he worked before he was famous, including a stint as an usher in this very arena. The show’s other theme is the recent death of his 96-year-old nan, a big presence in Kay’s life. Earlier, that manifested as some first-base gags about gran’s malapropisms. Later, it prompted a sentimental finale, as a conversation grandson had with granny at the end of her life is replayed over a family-album slideshow.
Elsewhere, while the set never directly addresses the reasons for Kay’s temporary disappearance from public life, there is a section on his recent health challenges. In comic terms, it’s the strongest part of the show, as Kay rolls his eyes at the anaesthetist asking for a selfie, then recounts the indignities of his recent operation for kidney stones. It’s familiar standup territory, but Kay’s got a minimalist gift for expressing indignity and dismay – and there’s a great acting-out of a genitally entangled couple making their way to hospital after an unfortunate post-op accident.
While this routine is fit to stand alongside well-loved favourites from Kay’s earlier shows, some of the material in the first act barely registers as comedy. When our host orchestrates the audience in a TV theme recital, say, or goes all misty-eyed at one chocolate-bar jingle after another, his role is more conduit for our collective memory than comedian. You look in vain for punchlines – at least until the show’s multiple encores, when those early sections are revisited and built upon in quite spectacular fashion.
It would be unsporting to say too much about the jaw-dropping pageant that Kay lays on here, after the comedy show proper has come to an end. In keeping with the evening’s reflective vibe, there’s a section on misunderstood song lyrics, calling back to one of Kay’s most popular routines – and as funny as ever, because Kay takes so much pleasure in sharing with us these daft misapprehensions. After that, things get wilder, as all those TV themes and jingles return with bells and whistles added – and celebrity cameos, and hot air balloons, and our host dressed like Sergeant Pepper, living out his rockstar dreams.
By the end of Kay’s return to the stage after 12 years away, you can’t help but submit, not just to the spectacle, but to Kay’s commitment to celebrating his generational experience. Top Cat, the Bodyform advert, Blockbuster video: Kay doesn’t just joke about these Proustian madeleines of our shared youth – he fashions his whole show into a hymn to them. One can only imagine what anyone under 30 would think. But for Kay’s fans, it’s catnip. He returns to the stage older, as unapologetically traditional and even more nostalgic than ever, and delivers a show that’s pretty much irresistible.