Things had been going well for Miles Jupp. After his (superb) tenure on Radio 4’s The News Quiz ended in 2019, his acting career was on the up, thanks to an acclaimed play about the stiff-upper-lipped Mary Poppins actor David Tomlinson.
Then one day in 2021 he collapsed, colours dancing before his eyes. The world looked like “a stained-glass window”; he’d had a seizure, caused by an unnoticed brain tumour.
The ordeal that followed – diagnosis, brain-surgery, a wince-inducing anecdote about a catheter – is the story of his new stand-up show On I Bang. It unspools in leisurely, anecdotal style across the best part of two hours. Jupp is fond of Stephen Fry-ish pleonasm, never using one word when a dozen of the little fellows might be deployed with a certain degree of added pip. If On I Bang feels baggy, he’s a compelling storyteller throughout, even though (as he points out) any life-or-death suspense is slightly undermined by the fact he’s still here. Unless he is dead, and the Oxford Playhouse is heaven. There are signs it might be: “Excellent bus links, quite close to a Brown’s.” That’s a quintessentially Juppish line: of course his nirvana is a place with punctual public transport. He’s 44, but has always been spiritually in his late 50s, playing the pedantic fogey, revelling in bathos.
It’s a fine comic persona, and an influential one – Taskmaster star Ivo Graham, for instance, owes him a debt. David Tomlinson wasn’t all that far from Jupp’s usual schtick: a man out of time, fretting about the world’s falling standards. He’s aghast to see a branch of the Post Office absorbed by WH Smith, “folded into the insatiable maw of a once reputable bookshop and stationer” (a delicious bit of phrasemaking; a more tightly written version of this show would have had a few more lines like that).
Much of the comedy comes from the collision between his petty concerns (he complains constantly about household clutter) and this rare experience of actual significance. On the day his skull will be cut open, he’s distracted by the fact that there’s too little marmalade to go with the hospital toast. The NHS should remember that small things matter, he tuts: “Look after the marmalade, and presumably the dialysis machines will look after themselves.”
His usual stiff-upper-lippedness is dialled down a notch; the delivery’s understated, at times surprisingly quiet, as if he were recording the audiobook of the show rather than projecting it to the back of the stalls. The resulting intimacy means moments of vulnerability hit harder. When he admits to breaking down in tears in his wife’s lap before his surgery, you might feel a lump in your throat. If this show’s fourth star is partly for sympathy – well, you’d need a heart of stone to feel otherwise.
Still, he’s not one for self-pity, briskly brushing off his surgery’s ongoing side-effects (including spatial agnosia). Jupp has pottered through the valley of the shadow of death; thank heavens he’s still able to treat it so lightly.
Touring until May 17; milesjupp.co.uk