Joan Rivers At The South Bank Udderbely

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

The day after Sandra Bernhard opens in London, a grander, older dame of American comedy opens across the river, marking the start of the seven-week programme in the purple upside-down cow that is the Udderbelly.

There can be few who don’t know what to expect from the vitriolic Joan Rivers by now. With her bitter Jewish bitchiness, she might be considered Sarah Silverman’s spiritual grandmother, sniping viciously, provocatively and even offensively at any target in her sights. At 75 she may be the only star to look less lifelike than her Madame Tussaud’s waxwork, but she’s lost none of her bite.

Gays, Mexicans, the Chinese, fatties, old people, deaf people, blind people and countless celebrities are all fair game, covered by the usual allowance: well, she has a go at everyone. And if anyone has carte blanche to be throw good taste out of the window, it would have to be a woman who can make cruel jokes at the expense of her own beloved husband’s suicide. She has all the tact and compassion of Kim Jung-Il.

Some of her victims may seem dated and obscure – who would have thought that 79-year-old former American TV host Dick Clarke or Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy would be on the receiving end of a savage diatribe in London in 2009? In another evocation of her past, she performs – as she would have done in the nightclubs of the Sixties – in front of a bad, Four people employed simply to sit there and laugh at her jokes, then play a funky Bonzos-style version of Rule Britannia at the show’s end.

The uncompromising viciousness of River’s delivery means the brutality never stops, as the septugenerian draws energy from her own barbarism – a sort of comedic blood lust that keeps her vibrant. It means she’s not too old – or too embarrassed – to writhe around on the floor to illustrate a routine about sex. Getting to her feet is more of a struggle.

Can we talk? Well, she certainly can. Rivers is a verbal streetfighter, and her onslaught is relentless. If the wit behind the gags can sometimes be left wanting, the sharpness of their impact never is. So while many comics have mocked the likes of Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism, Madonna’s English pretensions or Angelina Jolie’s Third World adoptions, few do it with such short, sharp stabs. And it’s given an extra edge as it’s highly likely she knows these people.

There’s little new here from Rivers’s last visits to the UK – despite the cue-cards to prompt her taped to the stage floor. But you can’t be a comedy fan and not want to see this legend, still in full force after all these years.

Review date: 28 May 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Underbelly Festival

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