Hannah Gadsby: a stand-up really hitting her stride (despite a broken leg)

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Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby - Ben King
Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby - Ben King

Hannah Gadsby is literally on a roll. At one recent show, the Australian comic almost rolled into the audience; she’s broken a leg, and hasn’t yet got the hang of her wheelchair. Thankfully, the Brighton Dome doesn’t have a raked stage, so her gig there this Wednesday – coming off the back of two acclaimed Netflix specials – showed no signs of a literal or figurative downhill slide.

What happened to the leg? She tripped, walking. “It’s a sad day when you’ve got to accept that you’re just not very good at walking,” she deadpans. That set-up undersells the story that follows, about a near-death incident on an Icelandic fjord. But wryly lowering expectations is a running theme of this set.

In 2018, Gadsby became the biggest Tasmanian in comedy since that furry chap from Looney Tunes. The show that made her a global star, Nanette, could easily have become a cage. Recounting a lifetime of homophobic and sexual abuse, it inspired more tears than laughter. In it, Gadsby declared that she was retiring from comedy. Marginalised people shouldn’t tell self-deprecating jokes, she argued: the world has deprecated them enough.

Five years later, she’s telling self-deprecating jokes. What changed? Fame, partly. Gadsby is a skilled enough comic to know that, if you’re sharing stories about meeting Jodie Foster and Richard Curtis, painting yourself as a bit of a schmuck helps to keep the crowd onside.

While Nanette – and, to a lesser extent, Gadsby’s follow-up Douglas – drew on a reservoir of anger at the world’s ills, this is a gentler “feelgood show”; its focus is love and family. She’s decided to emulate her father, who’s never ventured a controversial opinion on anything. “Once he declared that hummingbirds were pretty impressive, but other than that he steers clear of politics.”

It’s a striking subversion of what audiences have come to expect from a Gadsby show. Still, though determined to “keep a lid on it”, that lid pops off with passing digs at space-travelling billionaires, doctors’ ignorance about the menopause (Gadsby is 44) and – showing she’s “happy to bite the hand that feeds” – both Netflix and her Netflix stablemates Jimmy Carr and Dave Chappelle.

It’s not flawless. A few weak puns fizzle, and a routine arguing that “actually, money does buy you happiness” – in that it buys “shelter, security” etc – slips into cliché. It’s also, essentially, a work-in-progress; Covid and her injury meant Gadsby had to cancel previews (where she’d usually test new material) and plunge straight into the tour proper. As she pleads, more than once, mocking her own occasionally tongue-tied moments: “Let me practise talk!” By the time the tour reaches London, these wrinkles will likely be ironed out. Judging by Wednesday’s standing ovation, her fans are more than happy to grant her leeway till they are.

The heart of the set is a delightful, touching shaggy-dog story about how Gadsby proposed to her wife; it’s a disappointing story, she teases. (It is not.) The break-up show is a familiar stand-up format – young Irish comic Catherine Bohart is currently touring a corker – but shows about being happy in love are both rarer and trickier.

Gadsby pulls it off here: if less formally inventive than her past work, this set also finds her more effortless, charming and easy in her own skin than before. Gadsby may claim she’s not very good at walking: I’d say she’s just hitting her stride.

Hannah Gadsby is at Brighton Dome on March 10, Edinburgh Festival Theatre on March 13, and the London Palladium March 15-19. Tickets: hannahgadsby.com.au

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