By rights, I shouldn't be writing this particular review. I'm a theatre guy through and through, and I only came along to Lewis Schaffer's stand-up set because I'd rated him in a play I saw earlier this Fringe. But then, by rights, Schaffer shouldn't be doing this particular show either. For the past few years he's defined himself, very deliberately and very skilfully, through the appearance of failure – yet this time round he's defied all expectations, and turned up in Edinburgh with an act which doesn't hide the fact that it's really rather good.
Performing in an improvised space at a community centre, his microphone is perched precariously on a wooden pallet – and he's standing on the edge of a metaphorical precipice, as well. On casual inspection, much of his material seems sexist, trans-phobic, or insensitive in the extreme; there's one gag involving sexual arousal and a Nazi salute which I still can't quite believe I laughed at. But he stays just the right side of being truly offensive, and if you accept his comments as the knowing dark humour which they are, there's simply no denying the comedy he wrings from his apparently blurted-out observations. There's a well-constructed narrative built around a failed romance (a story Schaffer returns to over and over again, changing key details each time) – but it's accompanied by plenty of free-rolling spontaneity, too.
Much of Schaffer's act involves critiquing his audience; no part of the room is safe, as he weighs in with no-holds-barred comments on their appearance, sexuality (he openly admits he's just guessing), and likely performance in bed. This could easily all be far too much, and it would be far too much in the hands of a brasher, more in-your-face comedian. But Schaffer's trademark downbeat air serves him well here; somehow it takes the sting out of what he's doing, conjuring the conspiratorial feeling that, when we're laughing at his insults, we're really laughing at him.
And then comes the shock. Because it turns out that Schaffer's crass, offensive, disturbingly-hilarious bumbling is working towards something genuinely liberating: a masterful take-down of the whole concept of human beauty, with a reassuring message about body image on the side. I don't want to spoil any surprises, but I can say that Schaffer takes his assessment of his audience to a new, unexpected, and utterly illogical extreme, thereby highlighting how inherently ridiculous it is to define and categorise the people around us. You could call this pro-feminist if you wanted to, but I think it has an even wider purpose than that; we are all who we want to be, Schaffer seems to suggest, and he's going to give us all a badge to prove it.
It's the strangest finale I could possibly have imagined, and yet, remarkably, it doesn't feel like a turn-around. It seems that this is just what you get, when you go through shallow judgementalism and emerge on the other side – and at the end, when Schaffer bestows on his former victims an almost spiritual kind of blessing, I felt nothing but regret that he hadn't picked on me. I did indeed feel beautiful, and Shaffer's show is indeed a success. I'm not sure which one of us is more surprised.