Nanette, Soho Theatre

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by guest critics Maeve Ryan & Mark Nilsson

The show opens with award-winning comedian Hannah Gadsby revealing that, actually, she plans to give up standup comedy. She confesses that she has spent her ten-year career doing the set up and punchline of jokes. Jokes, she says, are about tension: in the first part she creates the tension and in the second part she releases it, and then we laugh.

In Nanette, Gadsby breaks down this joke structure as she expertly plays the audience, slowly lengthening the time delay between tension and release. Finally, she gives us no release at all, and like an accordion stretched beyond its length, her audience is broken.

Gadsby takes apart the self-deprecating, stage persona that delivered her comedy in the past. This character, she says, was damaging both to her and her audience because it allows the audience off the hook. They were allowed to feel comfortable with things they should not, thus evading responsibility for the lens through which much of the world views gay people. She sets out tell the truth about her experience as a lesbian woman, and thus subverts the expectations and form of a comedy show.

Gadsby is unrelenting, charismatic and angry. When she vents her rage, we feel trapped and uncomfortable, waiting for the pay off gag — that release — but she assures us that it won’t come, and it doesn’t. And why should it? She explains how there is no daily release for her as a lesbian who was raised to hate homosexuality, nor will there ever be. Though essentially a tragedy, this show contains eloquent and original jokes — in her own words she is a ‘funny fucker’. The reluctant elderly barista of the title is delightfully described as ‘a thumb in an apron’.

Later, we are shocked by the incandescence of an artist addressing us so personally and directly from the stage. As she says herself, she has a right to do so, because this is theatre. It is indeed theatre — tragic, powerful theatre. Though the narrative is hard to follow at times, most of the audience will never forget what they have seen and heard here. If Gadsby is giving up comedy, the standing ovation she received will likely convince her not to give up performance.

We have laughed heartily, then we shuffle out shamefully. Masterful.

Nanette runs through 11 November.

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