Common as it now is for well-loved figures to bring their life stories, gossip and opinions to the touring stage, one seldom mistakes these “An audience with …” events for actual standup comedy. So it’s caps doffed to film-maker John Waters, much of whose 90-minute Barbican appearance is comedy in all but name. It finds the so-called “sultan of sleaze” weighing in on woke culture, cracking wise about Covid, and imagining the ways he might yet, aged 76, reinvent himself. Given that he is presenting it twice in one night, this show is a motor-mouthed and on-point performance to put many a professional standup to shame.
Admittedly, there are more smiles than laughs – unsurprisingly, given Waters claims to hate jokes. What we get instead is attitude. Here is a career provocateur with finite respect for the sensitivities of our culture-wars moment. There’s no sacred cow he won’t prod (“I wish Greta Thunberg would run off with Barron Trump”), no infraction of good taste he won’t relish. He may worry he’s turning into a reactionary, but only as a pretext for some bull-in-china-shop (and not remotely consistent) rumination on gender fluidity, modern dating and “respectable gays”. (“We’re weakening the pervert brand!”)
There is no danger of Waters’ brand weakening: he comes across as ever-mindful of it, crowing about recent appearances in ad campaigns, hit TV shows and halls of fame. Self-congratulation is built into events like these, mind you – and Waters wears his lightly. The second half is given over to an inventory of his films, with generous anecdotes about his collaborators – including the recently deceased owner of the singing anus in Pink Flamingos.
You can discern, behind the slick anecdotage, a heartfelt commitment to delinquency – see his paean in the post-show chat to a 2018 movie about women masturbating to 9/11. And regret, too, at a climate that makes his outre early work feel more confrontational today than when it was first made. But of regrets, Waters has very few. This lively show is far more pro than anti, a celebration of the values – trashiness, twistedness and gleeful transgression – that made his name.