The Raw and the Cooked
“Hookers Do It Standing Up” by Lady Grew, and “Drowning” by Marise Gaughan, are two very different, one woman comedy shows by two very impressive and brave women, both tackling taboo subjects. But the similarities end there. For one show is raw, uncompromising, pared right back to basics, the other is a song and dance act cooked in faux Vegas lights striving to be a spectacle.
In “Drowning,” comedian Marise Gaughan jokes openly about her father’s suicide, about her own impulse to suicide, about incest, sleeping with older men, being locked up for three days in a mental institution, and about lifeless hand jobs that let you know your relationship is over. And it's all true, every word. Well, most of it anyway. Indeed, when Gaughan interrogates her own personal experiences her scalpel sharp, dark comedy is at its most brilliant best, disturbing you right out of your comfort zone. Yet when she resorts to jokes about guide dogs and ATM’s, or inmates trying to solve the economic crisis, things can fall flat.
It can be an unsettling experience watching Gaughan. The brave manner in which she jokes about her father’s suicide allows you to enter that dark space to laugh with her. Yet her inability, or unwillingness, to talk about her own suicide attempt with that same ease, candour, and detached control, the topic being dismissed as soon as its mentioned, has you wondering just how comfortable Gaughan really is with her own material. And wondering if the interspersed jokes are providing her with more light relief than the audience.
Throughout, Gaughan’s deadpan delivery imbues “Drowning” with a strong sense of detachment and unease. Gazing over the heads of the audience, rarely making eye contact, Gaughan can give the impression at times that she isn't so much working the room as enduring it. Indeed, her infrequent reminders as she strays into dark spaces that she feels she's losing the room, when she’s not, reinforce how tenuous the link can be at times. As well as highlighting how close to the surface those psychic pains might be that Gaughan is bravely addressing. All of which makes “Drowning” provocative, insightful, and often uncomfortable, but uncomfortable in a good way. One wishes Gaughan would joke further, and in greater depth, on those things we often daren’t speak about. For her smart humour and fierce honesty in those darkest of places makes them better understood, accessed, and accepted, has you laughing when you feel you shouldn't, and is far more potent then many of the regular jokes.
Another show looking to push the audience out of its comfort zone is Lady Grew’s “Hookers Do It Standing Up.” An unapologetic sex worker, the extremely personable Grew sets out to challenge conventional ideas as she makes a compelling case for the decriminalisation of sex work. Which proves far more interesting than her stories and songs, with her stories almost undoing all her good work.
If Grew is openly out as a sex worker, she’s never quite as outrageous an act as she's striving to be. Following a sterling introduction by an unnamed MC, Grew talks in broad terms about prostitution, covering a lot of ground that’s been covered before, with some clever takes on her own degrading work for Greenpeace being far more engaging. Talk about her day job frequently gives way to songs about her day job; part hip-hop, part reggae, some whose lyrics are hard to make out. Yet the bulk of the show is given over to a series of lacklustre kiss and tell stories about her clients, let’s call them John. The effect is a curious one. If Grew is looking to challenge the stigmatisation of sex workers, “Hookers Do It Standing Up” doesn’t always help by reinforcing the negative image of their clients, none of whom emerge with any redeeming qualities. This mixed message doesn’t make for a great selling point in promoting positive perceptions of prostitution, which is presented as pandering only to priests, the pathetic, or the perverted. Even if funny on occasion, sex rarely sounded so uninviting.
A brief cameo by the incomparable Panti Bliss proves to be a double edged sword. On the one hand Panti immediately energises the room, on the other she serves as a reminder of what’s not quite there yet during a wonderful routine on female objectification. Grew’s immediate follow-up, which attempts to get everybody standing up and dancing to another of her songs, only served to reinforce this discrepancy.
Where Grew really sells it, obvious pun intended, is in her direct, and super smart interrogation of sex work, Irish law, and hypocritical social prejudices. Most notably during a searing response to #metoo for its lack of engagement with the concerns of sex workers, and a damning indictment of recent changes to Irish law which potentially puts sex workers at even greater risk. Indeed “Hookers Do It Standing Up” becomes far more engaging when Grew wears her activist heart on her sleeve and speaks passionately about her concerns directly, reminding us why she is director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland. In full disclosure, needing to get to another show I didn't get to see the final few minutes as “Hookers Do It Standing Up” ran a little over time. Which is my loss. For even if “Hookers Do It Standing Up” has its issues, and even if Lady Grew is no Panti Bliss or Penny Arcade just yet, Grew performs with a passion and energy that has you rooting for her right till the end.
“Drowning” by Marise Gaughan runs at The Comedy Cellar at Festival Club as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2018 until September 22
“Hookers Do It Standing Up” by Lady Grew runs at The International Bar as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2018 until September 22
For more information, visit Dublin Fringe Festival 2018