Published Sep 20, 2019To the extent that there were problems with Ronny Chieng's set at the Royal Theatre on Thursday night, none of them had to do with the strength of his material. "I'm filming something for Netflix next week," he told us early on, before using the remainder of his performance to tune-up specific bits in preparation for the taping. Rather than making use of a formal set-list and thoughtful segues, he spent long stretches of the hour flipping through his notebook, ostensibly torn between which portions of his act were in need of the most polish.
Whereas this casual approach may not have seemed out of place in a club setting, it felt conspicuously incongruous in the context of a a theatre, in which audiences are typically accustomed to seeing products that feel closer to finished. It had the effect of making Chieng's performance feel stilted, forcing him to repeatedly re-establish momentum, after grinding it to a halt between each individual bit.
Worsening matters, the impact particularly pronounced because, ordinarily, Chieng benefits a great deal from inertia. He doesn't perform the types of disparate one-liners or neatly wound jokes that can typically sustain long pauses. Rather, he emphasizes sprawling bits that necessitate audience buy-in before eventually paying dividends in the form of a barrage of sharp punch lines and tags.
That the audience was nearly always rapturous again by the end of these bits is a testament to the quality of Chieng's writing and salesmanship. His perspectives on race, social justice and the absurdity of human behaviour seem to perfectly straddle the fruitful middle ground between being inventive and relatable, and he delivers these perspectives with an endearing, performative aggravation that wills you over to his side, regardless of your own opinions. All things considered, it's just a shame that whenever we'd get a glimpse at these skills, Chieng would immediately return to his notebook.
To his credit, Chieng made it a point to openly acknowledge this wasn't his most polished set, joking about how "unstructured" it was, and setting up his closer by rhetorically asking, "Wait, how do I end this, again?" On one occasion, he even informed us directly that "[his] Netflix special [would] be nothing like this."
After watching him fumble through his act for an hour and still kill, I'm inclined to believe him.