Ben Russell | Melbourne International Comedy Festival review
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Ben Russell

Melbourne International Comedy Festival review

A supporting star in many an Aussie TV comedy show, Ben Russell is known as an improviser, actor and character comedian–most of which he has ditched for this first hour of unadulterated stand-up.

And how impressive the result, a candid account of the grimmest time of his life that doesn’t shy away from the despair he felt yet couches it in hilarity and often stupidity. We are left not with the impression of how bleak his life became but how grateful he is for the love and friendships that pulled him back from the brink, and without an ounce of schmaltz.

Much of the show is straightforward stand-up, though hardly conventional. Russell forges a distinctive relationship with the audience right from the announcement bringing himself to the stage that stupidly twists the phrasing, then backed up with off-kilter crowd work and unexpected questions.

Everyday first-hand experiences are daftly heightened in his retelling, from pharmacy visits to peeing, to him learning ‘how to be a big party boy’, all based in reality but made ridiculous. And there’s a ‘Fuck, Marry, Kill’ dilemma that’s easily one of the best gags of the whole festival, all the better as he gives the audience the space to figure the punchline out for themselves.

Visit Melbourne Melbourne International Comedy FestivvalMelbourne International Comedy Festiva news and reviews with Visit VictoriaRussell also uses his redoubtable performance skills to bring act-outs to life, with a wonderfully sarcastic impression of the English tattle-tale offended by the comic smoking a joint at the Edinburgh Fringe. He also offers an uncanny Louis Theroux impersonation and mimics the terse, clipped vowels of his disapproving doctor, English again, as she diagnoses his drink-induced health problems.

These physical ailments combine with a crisis of confidence in his comedy career, 20 years in, and he ends up in the darkest place.

Russell signposts the pivotal point but never dignifies it by name, instead drawing witty analogies. He reassures us that he’ll handle this moment with ‘grace and deftness’. It sounds like tongue-in-cheek arrogance, but turns out to be the gods-honest truth. Rarely is the serious and the silly blended so effortlessly as his telling of this story.

In this, perhaps, he owes a debt to his ever-smiling Texan dad and his talent for softening the blow – indeed the whole hour is performed in front of the flag of the Lone Star State., in tribute. He can, and indeed does, also thank his partner Maggie Looke, who co-wrote and directed this impressive hour, quietly powerful while never substituting laughs with drama. 

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Review date: 21 Apr 2024
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Melbourne International Comedy Festival

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