I did question whether I deserved it,” says Richard Gadd. “Where did my wrongdoing stop and hers begin? When she started doorstepping me? When she attacked me?”
The 30-year-old comedian is talking about his stalker. The woman, “Martha”, who sent him 41,071 emails, 350 hours of voicemail, 744 tweets, 46 Facebook messages, 106 pages of letters, sleeping pills, a woolly hat, a pair of brand new boxer shorts and a cuddly reindeer toy. Who turned up at his shows, and outside his house. “All,” as he says in his new show Baby Reindeer, “within the realms of legality.”
“I certainly egged the situation on before I realised that it was as dangerous as it was,” he sighs now. “I behaved like a prick at times.” Initially, Gadd flirted with the woman, who was significantly older than him, out of what he now recognises as a patronising sense of pity. “I find that quite awkward, because you can tell that the audience turn against you in those moments. And they’re right to.”
A first-person performance piece based on his experiences with Martha (a pseudonym), Baby Reindeer premiered at Edinburgh Fringe this summer. Now, Gadd is bringing it to London. “It does drain you,” he says of the show. “Talking about stuff that’s real is exhausting. Because it’s vulnerable, and some parts still hurt, and some parts still feel awkward and messy.”
We’re in a west London restaurant and the Scotsman is sipping on a cappuccino. It’s too strong, he says, but he wanted something to do with his hands. Is he going to order food? “I’m quite a self-conscious eater, but I might have something small.” He orders the “wrestler’s naan roll”, the biggest thing on the menu, stuffed with streaky bacon, sausages and fried egg.
Gadd has an endearingly anxious energy about him – an energy that only increases when he’s onstage. His early stand-up career comprised shows that were “very dark and very mad”. 2015’s Waiting For Gaddot was a high-concept caper where the joke was that he only turned up five minutes before the end. He spent the whole of his 2016 show Monkey See Monkey Do, for which he won the Edinburgh Comedy Award, on a treadmill. In Baby Reindeer, his first foray into theatre, he paces, shouts and sweats, his emulated despair becoming more and more intense as his stalker’s messages are projected onto the walls around him, her voicemails blasted over loudspeakers. He wrote the show over two and a half years, obsessively writing and re-writing until he felt it did the situation justice.
As it’s told, over the course of an hour, the experience sounds terrifying. Crippling. But Gadd insists that Martha – who came into the pub he was working in and gradually became obsessed after he gave her a free cup of tea – is not to blame. “I can’t emphasise enough how much of a victim she is in all this,” he says. “When we think of stalkers, we always think of films like Misery and Fatal Attraction, where the stalker is a monstrous figure in the night down an alleyway. But usually, it’s a prior relationship or someone you know or a work colleague. Stalking and harassment is a form of mental illness. It’s a systemic failure that a situation like this is allowed to exist, rather than a failure of the people involved. It would have been wrong to paint her as a monster, because she’s unwell, and the system’s failed her.”
When Gadd attempted to go to the police, he was told he needed concrete evidence of direct threats. “The laws surrounding harassment and abuse are so stupid,” he says, “because they look for black and white, good and evil, and that’s not how it works. I could intimidate you by turning up to your workplace every day and getting a coffee over the road and staring through the window at you. You might feel very uncomfortable about that.” I certainly would. “But unless you can prove that there’s some sort of physical threat, he can do as he pleases. That’s really jeopardising your life. But you can really affect someone’s life within the parameters of legality, and that is sort of mad.”
Last year, it was reported that the number of recorded stalking offences had trebled since 2014, but prosecution rates had plummeted. In Gadd’s case, the unusual gender dynamic complicated things – the police officers were clearly amused by the idea that he could feel threatened by a woman smaller than him – but women, who are the victims in 80 per cent of stalking cases, face untold difficulties, too. In 2016, when Lily Allen went public about a seven-year ordeal with a stalker who ended up storming into her bedroom, she condemned the way the police had behaved towards her. “I’m a famous person and had the inclination to push things,” she said. “If they treat me like this, how the hell are they going to treat someone else without those resources, without clout?”
Gadd doesn’t blame the police, though. “It’s not their fault – it’s the lack of funding, the lack of training, the lack of understanding, the lack of support for the victims. Even the police have come out and admitted that their attitudes to harassment are wrong and flawed. But admitting it is one thing. It needs fundamental change. I don’t want to be the clichéd artist slagging off the government, but it needs overhaul and funding and there needs to be massive systemic change. The fact that they haven’t thought, ‘Oh, we better step up a little bit more’, just shows how selfish and dangerous the Tory government is.”
Baby Reindeer was originally envisaged as a comedy performance, rather than a theatrical one. Gadd quickly realised that wouldn’t work. “I just don’t think I needed to poke fun at the story,” he says. “If I’m trying to make this funny all the time, then I’m adding a layer of controversy to a show that’s already quite controversial. It could have been harsh and cruel and insincere.”
Then again, he is hardly a stranger to making comedy about deeply uncomfortable subjects. Monkey See Monkey Do culminated in him revealing that he had been sexually assaulted four years earlier by a man at a party. He didn’t go into details, focusing instead on how his sense of self had crumbled in the aftermath. Before that, his shows had made only vague allusions to abuse – jokes that some critics found distasteful. One 2014 review particularly stung: “Three times in the first half-hour, Gadd gets molested or threatened with molestation by predatory gay men – which is presented as hilarious.”
“It was a very difficult time in my life,” he says, “and I would do these shows with underlying references to gay abuse, that would seem funny and probably quite surface level, but I found a weird peace just by hinting at something. So these shows were very sexually depraved and I’d feel a mini catharsis when I did them. I look back on them and they weren’t deftly done. And of course, a lot of reviewers thought it was cheap. And it was. But it felt real at the time. I used to agree with the criticism, but also be like: ‘I wish you knew why I was doing this.’ When I eventually came clean about it, people were like, ‘Oh, that makes a lot of sense.’ So I can’t really punish myself.”
Gadd has a habit of punishing himself, though. “Do I deserve this?” he asks himself repeatedly in Baby Reindeer, just as he did earlier in our conversation. Doesn’t he think he’s putting a little too much blame on himself? “Better safe than sorry,” he deadpans. “Self-blame is a natural by-product of getting harassed, stalked, abused. Because what’s happening to you is fundamentally irrational.”
But he’s glad for having made the show. “I think no matter how flawed I am in the story, and no matter how difficult it is to watch, a story like that needs to be told.”
Baby Reindeer runs at the Bush Theatre, London from 9 October to 9 November. Buy tickets at BushTheatre.co.uk