Jen Brister: Meaningless review – a furiously funny blast of rage

The starting point of Jen Brister’s 2018 show Meaningless, now available online from Soho theatre, is that the Brighton comic’s mum has moved in with her. Watching it in the lockdown era, when contact with parents has become verboten for many, you could get dewy-eyed at that. But dewy-eyed isn’t quite how Brister experienced it. Her “dogmatic, confrontational, angry Spanish mum” drives her round the bend, triggering this hour-long tirade about mothers and daughters, “boys are better” and how still, after all these years, women get too small a slice of the pie. “Give me my fucking pie back!” bellows Brister, and the crowd (51% of it, at least) goes wild.

It’s not just mum who has focused Brister’s mind – and her fury. With her partner Chloe, she’s now a mother herself to four-year-old twin boys. Other people’s confusion about same-sex parenting; other mothers’ unwelcome advice about child-rearing – Brister spits tacks at it all, not least because of its often gendered assumptions. Why don’t we let boys emote? Why can’t girls and women talk about their periods – far less the menopause, in whose foothills 44-year-old Brister now finds herself?

Little of this is new material for standup. The tampon tax has been subject to many a comedian’s protests, and “if men bled” has been the thought experiment of acts from Ben Elton to Michelle Wolf and beyond. But Brister brings a depth of feeling and technical control – moving from cool intelligence to apoplexy and back – that leases the material fresh life. There’s likable character work, cartoon portraits of her mum and two sons (one camp; one like Ray Winstone) to offset the cultural politics. And Brister does funny scorn, too, her mimicry of passive-aggressive women and Neanderthal men spilling over into juvenile gibberish.

Maybe that device is overused; perhaps there are too many moments when Brister’s intemperate rage is the only joke. Or when it excuses weak material, like the punning title to her menstruation-based kids TV show. More often, her combination of weariness and seething frustration make of Meaningless an entertainingly charged battle between sexist attitudes that refuse to die and a comedian who absolutely refuses to tolerate them.