Brendon Burns: Sober Not Clean

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Some people will do anything to get material for their Edinburgh show. Brendon Burns went mad. Proper, smearing-your-own-shit, mad.

Anyone who's been following the previous instalments of the soap-opera trilogy that his life has become won't be surprised to learn that drink and drug addictions played their part in this downfall. The outrageous exploits he so loved to tell on stage ­ for which read 'tendency to act like a grade-A arsehole but joke about it afterwards' ­ also turned out to be symptoms.

So, sinking to his lowest ebb, he checked into rehab at the Priory, cleaned himself up, and now he's back to tell us about his belief in God and how it helped him overcome this problems. Alleluyah.

You may think that précis is a joke: Burns is surely a foul-mouthed, offensive Aussie who won't leave any taboo untrashed for the sake of a joke. Surely our hard-hitting gobby lout isn't going to use such a clichéd, tabloid-magazine tale of triumph over adversity, with God's help, as the basis of a show.

Well, he is. But thankfully, his tale is not couched in such saccharinely uplifting banalities. Nor is it the excuse for some gloomily depressing, introspective wallowing in his suffering in the name of artistic weight. Instead it's a funny, wide-ranging show, leading the audience into all sorts of unexpected territory, but accompanied by a reassuringly skilful guide. As an audience, we're only sightseeing in his tale of misery, so we see the landmarks, he tells us a funny, interesting and illuminating story, then the chuckle bus moves on to the next off-the-beaten path destination for the same again.

The Priory, we learn, is no glorified weekend spa to pamper the over-burdened celebrity, but a full-on mental institution. Ironically, a place bleak enough to drive anyone mad. But with the help of his fellow patients, some painful self-analysis and something called equine therapy, Burns pulled through ­ and he hasn't touched a drop, or anything stronger, for months. And this time, the sobriety will surely stick.

Details of what exactly happened in the Priory is glossed over, save for that equine therapy in which Burns was kicked by a horse, an incident that seems to be given far too much stage time in a show in which so much else happens (and which consequently overruns by 20 minutes).

Instead, we flashback to incidents that might have provided telltale signs of his festering disease: picking fights, plunging depths of sexual depravation, or simply getting drunk or high. Luckily these symptoms of mental illness are prime fodder for raucous stand-up anecdotes. You wonder how his therapist ever kept a straight face.

In the more recent past, his drug-induced experiences made him contemplate the afterlife ­ well, you would when the Devil himself starts chatting personally to you ­ so leading to some interesting philosophical material about its nature. You may very well not agree with this bit, but Burns still makes a decent argument.

The fear, or course, is that his new, cleaned-up life won't lead to the glorious tales of excess we've all enjoyed so vicariously over the years. That may still be true ­ though he's always got that mental library of experiences to flick through. But the good news is that Burns' comic brain is back firing on all cylinders, and now he can rely on his fierce and fearless intellect to get his material, rather than having to sleep with two ugly fat women at the same time.

Analytically, Sober Not Clean is not flawless ­ the usual criterion for five stars. The narrative sometimes gets forgotten amid the digressions, the ethics are still screwed up as he still seems naughtily proud of the bad behaviour caused by his illness, and a few too many details are skimped on, presumably because there's not much funny in them. And don't get me started on the cringe-making professional arrogance contained his uplifting final message (hopefully meant tongue-in-cheek, but it doesn't quite come across that way)

But you have to hail a comic who exposes his life so willingly, who takes his audience on such an emotional ride without resorting to course manipulation, who has the courage to flirt with conventions of bad taste, who has the power of delivery to overwhelm resistance, revulsion and downright hostility, and, most of all, who makes it all damn funny.

Brendon, have that fifth star you've never before received from Chortle. God knows, you've been through enough to earn it.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Review date: 1 Aug 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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