Rob Gee: Fruitcake at the 2010 Leicester Comedy Festival

Note: This review is from 2010

Review by Steve Bennett

There’s a theory that large parts of comedy involve laughing at the mentally ill – everyone from Basil Fawlty to Larry David is only one outburst away from a psychiatric diagnosis.

In which case, stand-up and poet Rob Gee should have a treasure chest of comic inspiration to draw from, given that he spent 11 years as a psychiatric nurse. Indeed, the programme assures us that the series of psychotic episodes described in Fruitcake are all true, without exaggeration or distortion, although the patients’ identities are, naturally, masked.

Early on, he runs down a roll-call of the disturbed in a fast-paced poem detailing the paranoiacs, psychotics, addicts, anorexics, deluded, suicide cases and self-harmers that he’s encountered. Then over a series of short monologues broken up by the ‘commandments’, he details specific experiences and case studies.

There are two dangers with a show based on a subject such as mental health – either it becomes too precious, bogged down in ‘raising awareness’ and other such worthiness, or it can simply become an excuse to mock the afflicted; laughing at those who believe a sinister Them are eavesdropping every thought and transmitting messages through a vast network of microscopic speakers.

It can’t be denied that there is a strong element of this later style of humour – but Gee has pitched it perfectly, ensuring that we never forget these are real people who were unfortunate enough just slipped off the edge. If one message comes through, it’s of the fragility of sanity.

Some people, admittedly, slip further than others, but even the actions of a man who sawed off his own hand are explained rationally, in a rare sombre piece, that reinforces the ‘there but for the grace of God…’ point, but with typical subtlety.

A dark, mordant wit is the main ingredient of this Fruitcake You don’t spend more than a decade on the psych wards without developing a certain gallows humour, and Gee employs it skilfully as he entertainingly recounts the transgressions of staff and patients alike. He starts the show with the story of two charges who decided to hold up a bank with water-pistols painted black, then moves towards the pranks – and the thoroughly unprofessional behaviour – of his colleagues.

The show does contain poetry, but even the most verse-averse needn’t worry, as it’s used in moderation. Mainly this hour showcases Gee’s strong talents as a witty, skilful storyteller, with some hugely entertaining anecdotes to his name. And for a wordsmith, he moves remarkably well, too, in a splendid sample of physical comedy as he re-enacts the movements of a man being restrained.

It’s all part of the varied pace of this happy hour, which ends with a song, the jaunty ska-flavoured It Could Be Worse, which really ought to be hit. And who better to cover it than Madness.

Review date: 10 Feb 2010
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Reviewed at: Leicester The Y Theatre

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