Louis Theroux Without Limits review - When Louis met Auckland

When Louis Theroux takes to the stage at Auckland's Civic Theatre for his first ever live stage show, it's a bit like watching your best mate's dad get up to do a 21st speech. 

You're braced for a smattering of puns, an impromptu song of some sort and a bit of awkward audience participation - and you should be, because all those things will happen - but mostly, you're bowled over by how effortlessly God damn good he is. 

Louis Theroux: Without Limits begins with the man, the myth, the meme himself reading a passage about polyamory from his new book, Gotta Get Theroux This. He's a touch nervous, but of course, we love that. 

When that iconic, soothing, sing-song voice we've come to rely on as a narrator finally addresses the crowd, we're all suddenly aware there's an icon in the room. Or maybe that's just me, having a full-blown fangirl freak out. 

What follows is a mash-up of a writer's festival panel and a clip show of Louis' best moments. I feel well-versed in the latter, having lost many hours of my life to obsessive Theroux-themed YouTube romps through every bit of his work. I can confirm the trip down memory lane is even better when you're not by yourself in your bedroom at 2am. 

Louis is joined on stage by bubbly Aussie actor Julia Zemiro, who's there to guide him through his life and times, quiz him on the intricacies of documentary-making, and at one point, freestyle rap with him. The pair make rather a strange match, their cheeky Aussie and considered Brit vibes at odds with each other. 

Am I just jealous because Louis introduced her as his friend? Maybe. Zemiro is actually a very good host, who managed a very tricky format well, but I suspect she didn't really need to be there. 

When Louis gets going on his own, telling one of his anecdotes, he's brilliant. Quick on his feet, adaptable, self-deprecating and incredibly genuine - at times, with the chops of a proper stand-up comic. 

"You can masturbate at me all day!" he cries, while reliving a hilariously disturbing tale of a prisoner "gunning" his crew in Miami Mega Jail. "But auditioning for something, or getting up on stage, believe it or not, that's what really scares me." 

Louis Theroux with Kiwi filmmaker David Farrier.
Louis Theroux with Kiwi filmmaker David Farrier. Photo credit: Louis Theroux/Twitter

And so it's understandable that Louis wants Zemiro around to take the heat off him for some of the time - he's not used to being the one under the microscope. Having made a career out of offering audiences a look at the human race's most bizarre phenomenons, he has himself become one. 

I for one, find myself examining him with fascination - in the moments while the clips are playing, he sits stiffly with his hands on his knees like a highly intelligent cyborg that's been briefly powered down. 

Despite the variety of subjects covered in Louis' body of work - porn stars, Nazis, gangster rap, to name a few - we can't escape without a few pre-planned, heavily scripted zany moments to mix things up. 

Louis reprises his version of The Beatles' 'With A Little Help From My Friends', once used to audition for a Norweigan cruise ship ensemble. It's cute, but a little cringy and out of context. We can forgive it. Later, he ventures into the audience to learn about Aucklanders. He walks right past me. How could he? Strike two. Then he and Zemiro use the content from the audience interviews for a freestyle rap contest. I want to hate it, but I can't. 

"The skills are still there!" Louis tells us.It was always going be hard to beat his iconic verse from his Weird Weekend episode on gangster rap, in which he freestyles: "There's a car/It's driving down the road/There's a frog/And there's a little toad."

It's hard to imagine a more affable character in the entertainment world.

When confronted with a depressed lion in America's Most Dangerous Pets, he suggests giving it a popsicle. When interviewing violent inmates in Miami Mega Jail, he asks, "How do you do?" When a teenage Westboro Baptist Church member tells him he'll burn in eternal damnnation, he takes it in stride.

"Wow, there were so many things that were offensive, that was amazing," he replies to the rantings of three of America's Most Hated daughters in his first look at the controversial church. Now, years later, you can buy a sticker of that quote to put on your phone, and one of those daughters joins Louis on tour. 

Meghan Phelps-Roper used to join her family in the streets, holding aloft hateful placards emblazoned with shocking anti-semetic and homophobic statements. Since leaving the church in 2012, she has, in her own words "re-programmed". It's an amazing story, and she and Louis have developed a remarkable relationship. Zemiro's presence, again, feels a touch third-wheel-ish. 

We watch a clip of Meghan's estranged mother attempting to justify her brutal beliefs through tears as she grapples with the pain of the children who have left the church. It's an astonishing, poignant thing to watch a daughter reflect on. I'm pretty sure I caught Louis wiping away a tear.  

It's another clear demonstration of Louis' inimitable approach to the fringe members of society that are so easy to villianise. He's never simply voyeuristic - he brings them to us as multi-faceted humans, for better or worse. 

Overall, it's been a fittingly bizarre evening, provoking all the eyebrow-raises, laughs, and emotional conflict we've come to expect from Louis' documentaries.

And as the lights came up in the Civic, I wasn't sure what I had just seen, but I felt it was time to leave.