Hannah Gadsby: Donkey | Melbourne International Comedy Festival review by Steve Bennett

Hannah Gadsby: Donkey

Melbourne International Comedy Festival review by Steve Bennett

Mental health is an increasingly fertile ground for comedy, partly because the issue is losing its wider stigma and partly because stand-ups always want to explore, or exorcise, their own psyche. But also because when the brain misfires it can – stress ‘can’ – produce effects that are funny to the outsider with behaviour that transgresses social norms.

Yet it still requires a skilled comedian Yet it still requires a skilled comedian to set the right path, laughing un-self-pityingly at their own peculiarities to allow the audience to do the same. And Hannah Gadsby is more than up to the job. Few people could make the line ‘That’s how I discovered self-harm’ funny, but she does.

Last year she opened up about her depression and self-image, ultimately embracing who she was, and in the past 12 months she has a new diagnosis to add to her mental-health cocktail: ADHD.

The condition is, like autism, often used as a shorthand for what are simply behavioural traits, so it seems widespread among comics. But Gadsby drills down into the practicalities of how the condition affects her: a crippling inability to function that means she can’t boil an egg, or leaves washing-up piling up to the extent she has to hide it around the kitchen. Even those without a diagnosed condition will be able to relate to some of the behaviour, which she just takes to greater extremes than most.

She has a semi-detachment from her issues and can zoom out to see them for what they are. She gets angry at herself for having panic attacks or describes vividly how she unleashes an inner ‘pufferfish’ when she gets riled or stressed. Meanwhile the arguments inside her own head could make a one-woman Odd Couple sitcom, with the fastidious side in conflict with the attention-deficit part.

It would be easy to focus on the ‘laughing-through-the-bleakness’ side of the show, but it’s more than just the comedy of release. There are sharp jokes and even some quite edgy humour smuggled in through her cloak of self-depreciation. Rock-and-roll shock comics would wildly exaggerate the outrageousness of tangential gags about the Virgin Mary’s hymen or starving Africans. Gadsby gets on with it more quietly, more in context, but no less hilariously.

There’s a little more life to her dry, deadpan delivery – though she remains relatively languid on the wider scale of things. But you can sense her relief at having figured out what’s behind her issues, and started (with the aid of ritalin) to learn to live with them. Her honesty and the humour she uses to neutralise any potentially troubling moments are disarming.

Gadsby says that a previous newspaper review of this show has, with all the right intentions, included details of suicide helplines at the end. But the tone is ultimately so uplifting, with a message of managing the peculiarities that make up your complex self (the drugs help, admittedly) that the show could be better than therapy. Certainly for her.

Review date: 2 Apr 2015
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Melbourne International Comedy Festival

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