The ‘Malaysian prince’ of UK comedy, Phil Wang brings solid-gold gags to the Apollo

British-Malaysian stand-up comedian Phil Wang
'Wang in there': British-Malaysian stand-up comedian Phil Wang - Matt Frost/Netflix

The grandeur of the Hammersmith Apollo might seem like an odd fit for Phil Wang, who has always been a determinedly understated performer. As his star has risen, through appearances in Wonka and Taskmaster, he’s never felt much pressure to expand the scope or flashiness of his core offering. Observations about the differences between white and Chinese people constitute his signature move, and they’ve served him well so far.

Wang grew up in Borneo before moving to Bath as a teenager, and his best material takes advantage of that dual viewpoint, gently skewering white people with something they never knew was absurd about themselves. His solid gold opening routine makes great hay of the British fear of reheating rice and our paradoxical love of getting food poisoning on holiday. His talent makes mockery feel good, and it’s heartening that he spares a jab for Asian dietary mores to round it off: “Alcohol or dairy: a drop of either and we’re dead.”

Wang still trades in these stereotypes, but he skirts any more serious commentary on race for this cuddly, approachable show. Had he done otherwise, there’s a danger that it would have rung false. One of the major motifs of this set is how gently he treats himself and the pleasure that he takes in comfort. It makes for a refreshing change from other more neurotic or stressed-out comedians.

The pampered persona stays funny without becoming obnoxious, which is partly down to a certain childlike quality in his presentation. Tottering around the stage in his big square jumper and big square glasses, he’s able to affect a guilelessness that belies his sharp mind.

His friend, the Scottish comedian Fern Brady calls him a “Malaysian Prince,” which perfectly captures his energy: delicate, serene, used to the finer things in life; a less rugged performer it would be hard to imagine. In a routine about seeing Kendrick Lamar perform live, he laments that he can never relate to the hardships in the lives of others. “Nothing bad has ever happened to me,” he says firmly. The closest he has come to peril recently, he reveals, was when he overestimated the size of his own penis in his autobiography Sidesplitter, and almost had to come clean to the publishers.

Bucking the trend for narrative, confessional, or rigorously themed shows, Wang in There Baby is really just a collection of great observational routines, largely unrelated aside from that they all sprang from his mind. It has the feel of a greatest hits package – no concept ties it all together, but every routine lands with a bang.

Nevertheless, it’s a mark of his skill that these lightweight, charming routines can hold attention in any room, while still drawing big laughs from the jaded reviewer quadrant. You may not come away having been profoundly changed, but Old Wang – as the 34 year old will insist on calling himself – is not to be underestimated.