Brendon Burns and Craig Quartermaine in Race Off | Edinburgh Fringe comedy review by Steve Bennett
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Brendon Burns and Craig Quartermaine in Race Off

Edinburgh Fringe comedy review by Steve Bennett

If there are two things Brendon Burns likes, it’s talking about race and messing with his audience’s heads. Both of which are Present and Correct in Race Off, his double-act show with indigenous Australian comedian Craig Quartermaine.

Quartermaine was a surprise guest at the end of Burns’ last Fringe show, and this very much picks off where that left off, with a bit of overlap to bring newcomers up to speed.

But what it boils down to is that Burns is trying to chip away at the assumption, inherently  held by every white person to some degree, that ‘I am normal, everything else is ethnic.’ He keeps returning to the analogy that such thinking is like a ship’s icebreaker dividing the world along those lines. It doesn’t seem like a great metaphor, but Burns is nothing if not persistent. Anyhoo, to try to widen his perspectives, he’s been making a point of playing comedy clubs where he’s in a minority, as well as forged this professional partnership with Quartermaine.

The story which best sums up one of the points they are making, and probably the best in the show, involves them both in a car together in Australia, Burns driving, when he voluntarily pulls up for a roadside breath test, shoots his mouth off to the cop, and after a bit of goofing around drives off with a mutual laugh. Imagine if the black guy had spoken back with the swagger Burns is known for…

Their relationship isn’t just for Burns’ benefit, though. Quartermaine – who is understandably suspicious about white people’s motives – won’t let himself be used as a free pass for his pal to do whatever racial material he likes. Although he’s the less experienced comic, Quartermaine is by no means the junior partner, giving as good - and often better – than he gets.

The pair’s dynamic is playful and teasing. Quartermaine has the same ‘harden the fuck up’ attitude as Burns, but is much less in-your-face about it, and they mock each other relentlessly. The joke is that laid-back Quartermaine is only with one-time Perrier winner Burns for a career leg-up – though judging by the size of the audience the pair attract on the Fringe’s ‘black Wednesday’ of traditionally slow ticket sales, Quartermaine may have hitched his wagon to the wrong horse.

One of Quartermaine’s stories involves a holiday resort built on the graves of hundreds of Aboriginal prisoners, which seems too bleak to be funny – but apparently storms with black audiences down under. And with Brendon. Is that because he’s transcended the white blinkers to see things through the eyes of indigenous people, as he hopes. Or because he’s a dick who laughs at genocide and hasn’t the decency to carry white guilt about it.

Such questions, and others, are at the heart of Race Off… and there are no clear-cut answers, an ambiguity that sometimes makes it hard to score a point with the clarity comedy usually needs. Although the tales of awkward encounters between black people and even the most allegedly liberal white illustrate how much work needs to be done. These moments are as funny as they are revealing.

The show, which seems only part of the journey for both comedians, challenges the audience, or at least its white component, to take a look at themselves and their reactions to those immediately branded as ‘other’. A couple of bits of theatrical trickery achieve this: such as the device of blatantly treating white punters and people of colour differently. 

It’s impossible to unpack hundreds of years of racial baggage in one hour, and the complexities are too much to overcome. But Race Off – will succeed in prompting its white audience ask themselves questions about their attitudes to race – and give everyone else a chance to laugh at the Caucasians’ cack-handed attempts to bridge the divide.

Review date: 12 Aug 2017
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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