wed 22/05/2024

Baby Reindeer, Netflix review - a misery memoir disturbingly presented | reviews, news & interviews

Baby Reindeer, Netflix review - a misery memoir disturbingly presented

Baby Reindeer, Netflix review - a misery memoir disturbingly presented

Richard Gadd's double traumas are a difficult watch but ultimately inspiring

No laughing matter: Richard Gadd as Donny DunnNetfix

Richard Gadd won an Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2016 with material about being sexually abused by a man, in a set called Monkey See, Monkey Do that he performed on a treadmill with a gorilla at his back. 

He followed that with another piece of writing about abuse, this time meted out by a female stalker, Baby Reindeer, which he performed at the Fringe and then at the Bush Theatre in 2019. Spliced together, these two traumatic experiences now form his bleak Netflix seven-parter of that same name. 

"Baby Reindeer" is the nickname given to the object of her obsession by a middle-aged woman he had felt sorry for and gave a free Diet Coke to at the bar where he worked. He subsequently couldn’t dislodge her from his life for over four nightmarish years. The series has gone to the top of the Netflix charts, fuelled by the revelation that Gadd too has been the victim of a female stalker.

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in Baby ReindeerBut what are we watching here? It seems to be the theatrical equivalent of auto-fiction, the novelising of the writer’s own life, though here with a big TV production budget. So let’s be clear: Gadd experienced the same abuse and harassment he makes the protagonist of his drama undergo, and this character, Donny Dunn, a struggling comedian from Fife, is played by him. Much of the content of his series is directly culled from his own life, he has stated. But it’s not strictly a docudrama, more an attempt to dramatise the complexities of stalking.

Donny goes a-googling and establishes that his persecutor is a serial stalker who had previously been imprisoned for her activities and struck off as a lawyer. Nothing is known about the identity of the actual stalker, except that she was a couple of decades older than Gadd, and older than the screen stalker. In a gesture that is typical of Donny’s complicated reactions to her too, Gadd will not divulge who she is, still protecting her – or possibly fearing another explosion of her brand of violence into his life?

In his solo stage version, the woman – given the name Martha Scott in the TV version (pictured above) – was represented by a stool. Highlights from the 40,000-plus emails she sent Gadd were projected onto parts of the stage but now appear across the TV screen as they are being typed in, complete with fat-fingered spelling mistakes, foul-mouthed invective and attempts at dark humour. (We have to assume these are transcriptions of what she actually wrote: if they come filtered via Gadd’s writing skills, though, he should probably repackage them and go for a Booker Prize.)

Martha is now played by the excellent actress Jessica Gunning, whose incendiary performance is riveting. She has a soft, baby-faced charm, but her near-hysterical laugh is disturbing. When her dander is up, her eyes go dead and her twisted psyche delivers streams of vileness, sometimes with a punch in the face attached. When Gadd finally gets a restraining order, she switches to (legally) harassing his parents instead. His beautiful trans girlfriend, Teri (Nava Mau, pictured above), a therapist, tries to help him but fails, he loses the room he rents and the police end up seeing him as a pervert too, not just Martha. HIs life becomes a living nightmare.

But Donny is not wholly Gadd, a properly inventive actor-comic whose anarchic 2015 Fringe show, Waiting for Gaddot, was notorious for going ahead without him and featuring him in just the final five minutes. Donny is an inept comedian with a suitcase of daft props and a head full of half-baked ideas; he deserves to play empty back-rooms in Edinburgh pubs. His ambitions are naive – as Martha, who stalks and heckles his gigs, loves to tell him – far outstripping his talent. Which is why the offer of help from Darrien the abuser-writer (a sinister, almost unrecognisable Tom Goodman-Hill, pictured below) is so appealing to him. The scenes in Darrien’s modishly lit dungeon of a flat as he plies Donny with narcotics are properly disturbing.

Gadd’s sweating, panicked face increasingly appears in close-up, now doubting his sexuality as well as his safety, and relaxed only when he is in the grip of Darrien’s latest high-powered recreational drug. It’s a tour de force as a performance, though clearly one driven by Gadd’s personal need for a pubic confessional. His series now has 2.6m viewers and is a worldwide hit. Job done.

Gadd’s own unravelling took place onstage in two separate hour-long sets, three years apart. These were clear cries for help, as he wrestled with his demons in plain sight and was inevitably hailed as “brave”. Now it’s Donny who finally breaks down onstage and spews out all his misery onto an unsuspecting audience, then doubles down with his equally awful reliving of the Darrien assault. That’s a lot of misery for a TV drama series to shoulder. 

Lighter scenes are few and far between, though I came to welcome Donny’s visits to his local police station, where another perfectly judged performance awaits behind the front desk, courtesy of Thomas Coombes as a basically avuncular Essex-man cop with little power to help Donny. 

The drama’s best take-away moments for me are the quietest, such as the infinitely sad moment when Donny is revealing his rape to his parents and a brief, gentle remark uncovers a secret his Catholic father (Mark Lewis Jones) had let fester for years. As Donny gets closer to ridding himself of Martha too, he is much more honest about the complex reactions he has felt towards her, including pity. Some light has entered the gloom.

The ending of the piece is also worth sitting through the previous three hours of misery for, a scene in which Gadd’s writing and performing achieve more than noisy soul-baring and move on to something resembling uplifting insight. He has promised in an interview that his next project is not based on personal misery. Let us pray.

Gadd will not divulge who his stalker is, still protecting her — or fearing another explosion of violence into his life?


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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