★★★★ HANNAH GADSBY, SOHO THEATRE Straight-talking comic takes no prisoners
Hannah Gadsby was awarded best show (jointly with John Robins) at the 2017 Edinburgh Comedy Awards for Nanette, which had already been given the equally prestigious Barry award at last year's Melbourne Comedy Festival. Gadsby draws us in gently, telling us that Nanette was so titled before she really knew what the show was going to be about, and she named it after meeting an unfriendly and unhelpful barista in smalltown Australia, in one of those places that she – a lesbian who is sometimes taken for a man – feels really unwelcome in.
That's probably the lightest moment in Nanette's 80 minutes at the Soho Theatre which, Gadsby tells us, is her last show; doing stand-up for the past decade or so has sapped her spirit, performing in a homophobic and misogynistic industry and baring her soul for others to laugh at. Self-deprecating humour, the source of so many laughs for comics, has teetered into humiliation. Even lesbians have turned on her, with some criticising Gadsby for her lack of “lesbian content” in shows. She drily recounts: “I don’t lesbian that much, I cook dinner more.”
Her anger – at sexism, homophobia, misogyny and sexual violence – is palpable
The show is sometimes difficult to sit through. Yes, it is laugh-out-loud funny in sections, but when Gadsby talks about growing up as an outsider in Tasmania – mainland Australia's shorthand for “backward”, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997 – the pain becomes obvious, and she wants us to experience some of the same feelings. So when she says jokes are about tension and the comic holds the power to release it, we suspect that she's going to be taking just that little bit longer to deliver the laugh.
And so Gadsby delivers a masterclass in performance as she plays us, slowly lengthening the delay between the build-up of tension and its release with a well honed gag – and at some points she just leaves us hanging. At others, her anger – at sexism, homophobia, misogyny and sexual violence – is palpable. But many fine lines in this show eloquently attest to her assertion that she's a “funny fucker”. Talking about someone's elegant handwriting she describes it as “cursive – all the letters holding hands”.
It was noticeable on second viewing that Gadsby – strangely, to me – has dropped her material about the fight for equal marriage in Australia, which since last August has become enshrined in law, and that there is only the briefest allusion to the fact we are living in a post-Harvey Weinstein world.
Most people will be coming to this show for the first time, of course, and will not be seeing it through the prism of the critical gaze of Edinburgh, so the one small moment of redemption – Gadsby's mother apologising for not raising her differently in the unspoken realisation that her daughter was gay – will have an emotional impact. Yet it does strike me that changes in women's and gay people's place in the world, however small, are not reflected here.
That aside, the show still packs a punch, and is an important one to see.
- Hannah Gadsby is at Soho Theatre, London W1 until 3 March