When I creep into Luke McQueen's rehearsal he is drilling his opening line, over and over: "Hello! How is everyone?" It's a safe choice – foolproof, even. But the stony-faced man opposite him just keeps sending him back to the stage-side toilet to burst out yet again.
What becomes clear after an embarrassingly long time is that McQueen (along with his companion, fellow comic Joe Bor) is in no mood for an earnest interview. The 'rehearsal' concludes and Bor, supervising, sets up two chairs facing each other; they’re a good 20ft apart. It’s not the discomfiting welcome McQueen gave in his 2014 show—when we found him slumped and half-naked, unresponsive until slapped—but it’s not exactly reassuring.
I am handed a memo: "A list of things I don't wish to discuss: The weather; My passwords; Any of my dead pets; My doughy physique; Books." That second-last one prompts a cringe – it's an uncharitable description from Fest's review of Now That's What I Luke McQueen, a grim spectacle of self-abasement by a comic driven mad by his own desperation for success.
Ground rules noted, we address this year's offering, the spuriously named Double Act. "I used to be in a double act," he deadpans, "and basically it's very painful seeing that person go off to have great success when you have none, and you're the one with all the talent and the ideas. And that person's got all the money and the fame… and the food. I will be naming them in the show. There may be some hints."
From the corner, Bor mutters: "Luke, you've got to do your thing... fitness regime." McQueen jumps to his feet and starts running on the spot. It seems remiss not to ask why.
"Well, last year I got some reviews that were quite negative about my physical appearance. You might have said I had... a doughy physique? This year I want to make sure that people are focused on the art."
And so every now and then, McQueen breaks into a jog. The conversation continues like this. When I ask about his progression since The Gadabouts, his long-disbanded sketch trio with Joe Bor and Matt Rudge, Bor takes his place and replies for him in a monotone: “I've changed quite a bit. I suppose I didn't take many risks. I wanted to be liked. I didn't know a lot about comedy when I started out. I'm a very different comedian now.”
Later, Bor flips his notepad to reveal he’s been sketching me all this time. Then McQueen declares a game of hide-and-seek, but since we’re in the stark white box of the Invisible Dot (the London HQ of his producers this year) he just stands next to a ladder, staring at me. Bor secretes himself in the toilet, and we leave him there.
There’s plenty to report besides, but—more so than any talk of influences, or turning failures into material, or of the brazen video stunts that last year saw him admit to a packed Pleasance Dome that he, not Frankie Boyle, would be the evening’s entertainment—it’s these mind games that come closest to the experience of watching Luke McQueen live. On stage he is petulant and unpredictable, both sadist and masochist. For every set piece designed to wrong-foot and intimidate the audience, there’s another in which he stomps his own dignity into dust.
Setting the diversions aside for a moment, he explains: “Here's the thing with interviews, you worry that you're answering in the same way as everybody else.” There’s little danger of that.