Sarah Keyworth: My Eyes Are Up Here review – top surgery becomes a family affair

<span>Engaging … Sarah Keyworth.</span><span>Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Guardian</span>
Engaging … Sarah Keyworth.Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Guardian

Sarah Keyworth launched their standup career with two thoughtful solo shows deconstructing gender and the meaning of “boy” and “girl”. Now they identify as “an emotionally unstable non-binary person”, with a new show about their recent top surgery. The thoughtfulness is a constant – focused here not on Keyworth’s reasons for seeking surgery, and far less on wider perspectives on gender realignment, but on the more upbeat question of how that body alteration has been experienced by Keyworth and their close family.

As we expect from Keyworth, it finds a comedian measuring out their material with great control, to the slight detriment of spontaneity. But the 30-year-old knows how to architect a big laugh. There’s a fine one-liner about gender pronouns, and a neat reversal that finds Keyworth eagerly welcoming transphobic comments beneath their online videos. A running joke imagines the east Midlander’s gender journey as the creepy quest of a sister to be more like their brother.

Amid the gags about the mild indignities of the pre-op process, the superficial benefits of breast removal, and Keyworth’s magically relocated nipples, two set-piece anecdotes about lesbian life prove crowd-pleasing too – even if they co-opt a few sexuality cliches to achieve the effect. A section teasing at the battered reputation of men, in dialogue with Keyworth’s audience, has a lower comic yield.

Related: Sarah Keyworth on grief and doing comedy ‘when you’re not feeling particularly funny’

The overarching story traces our host’s relationship with their mother in particular, from stroppy adolescence (very convincingly brought to life), via recent discovery of their parents’ hedonistic youth, to their mum’s response to Keyworth’s mastectomy. It is affectionately told by the comedian, in a show that – finally, and sentimentally – celebrates family love and acceptance. There’s a key piece of information withheld until the later stages, though, which feels a little manipulative, and opens a window on a compelling and more complex part of the story that is largely untold.

Maybe I felt that only because this tale of major surgery is otherwise so conspicuously untroubled. But it was a life-changing, positive experience for Keyworth, after all, which translates here into an engaging and touching one for audiences.

• At Soho theatre, London, until 9 March. Then touring until 1 December