I read somewhere once that the average person lies about ten times a day, just in the course of going about their business. I’m not sure if it was a particularly air tight piece of research, mind you. I mean, it seem to me to be a gross underestimate for anyone with parents, small children or a job on the phones selling people broadband upgrades on their mobile phone plan, which is a fair old swathe of the population.
It seems Ellen Waddell agrees with me on this, given the fairly unequivocal title of her second one person show (fuck off, I typed it at the top of the review, I don’t have to fucking spoon feed you people) which purports to deal with the necessity of telling the odd falsehood when, for example, applying for a job you desperately need but would much prefer unnecessary dental surgery, or pretending to be enthralled by the birth story of an over sharing friend when really you wouldn’t mind someone coming along to falcon punch her in her still-raw womb if it would make her shut up. You know the kind of thing.
Now though I very much enjoyed Ellen’s last show, Jean-Luc Picard And Me, it had a slight problem in that while it was actually about how we use popular culture to raise ourselves during the painful parts of our childhoods and the joy of using said pop culture to connect with other people, someone who hadn’t seen it might likely presume it was essentially an hour of jokes about Star Trek, so the long and explicit title is actually a big help in that regard at least. One of the things that struck me most about that show is how sharp an eye Ellen has for the universal weaknesses that bind us all in her own foibles, and how brave she was in using herself as an example to shed some light on them, and I was pretty interested to see if she’d built on this in what sounded like a very different show.
So it turns out: she has, and then some. There’s a very different structure here: where the first show was a PowerPoint lecture overseen by the not-all-that-benevolent paper mâché head of a Starfleet captain, this is more of a straightforward theatre set up interspersed with time travel interludes where Ellen takes us through her “difficult” 2012 largely spent trying to collect Successful Adult merit badges after a major career change left her unemployed, adrift, insecure and living in her mum’s back bedroom. She sets out to do this armed only with a chair and some party poppers. And, it should be noted, some excellent jokes about the dangers of performing sex acts on yourself in the past, because we’ve all wondered about that.
There’s a technique in psychotherapy called “empty chair work” which as you might expect involves the patient resolving difficult issues in their past by addressing an imaginary incarnation of the person involved: their mother, their ex-husband, their slightly weird flute teacher, the idea being that by releasing the emotion and imagining a controlled response in a safe setting, you can lessen the emotional hold that experience has over you. I wondered at points during the show if it was maybe THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF THAT, as the chair based scenarios- a disastrous first date, an interview for a tedious menial admin job that is still a hundred furlongs better than the alternative “no job at all”, and a teeth-gritting lunch with a smug, oblivious friend which culminates in Ellen frantically unburdening herself to an invisible newborn- demonstrate how easily she (and all of us) will modify our needs and feelings to secure the approval of others, even if we don’t like them that much. Even if they are in fact the sentient equivalent of one of those sick burps where you get foul burning acidy stuff sliding slooooooowly back down your throat (yeah, the First Date Guy sounds a absolute dickhead), it’s preferable to deceive them to gain approval rather than have them see inside us.
Which is where the adjoining monologue sections come in, and we confront the possibility that maybe we don’t want people to know our real selves because even we don’t like that person. Ellen does a remarkable and incredibly brave job here of managing never to lapse into self pity or self indulgent wallowing whilst being so gut wrenchingly honest that I must admit there were moments I had to look away or I would have done a bit of a cry in a room full of strangers, and I strongly suspect I wasn’t the only one-particularly at the ending, which is so raw it knocks the breath out of you and still somehow reminds you of the kind of warm buggy feeling you get when someone’s trusted you enough to tell you a secret. Because while the story she recounts is achingly personal, she’s also very adeptly identified the pressure points that none of us get through life without hitting at some point and the creeping sense everyone inevitably faces at some stage that they don’t meet expectations, their own or the world’s-that we are never quite enough: as Ellen describes it, the feeling that if you aren’t perfect, you are worthless. For those not so intimately familiar with this dichotomy as the likes of me, she’s also got a nice line in casually filthy jokes, well positioned pop culture references and wry asides that stops it becoming a total emoshe-fest, I mean it’s not Les Miserables up in here. (speaking of trying too hard to be impressive-thought I was clever trying to read that when I was 15 and saw the musical for Drama GCSE. 1000 fucking pages! Just say “the prostitute got TB” and let’s get moving here!)
What it is, though, is a thoroughly entertaining, witty and utterly human performance. I felt a couple of hours after I left when I was still feeling ALL THE FEELINGS, that in a sense this show is a gift to anyone who’s ever felt a bit different, a bit stupid, a bit of a failure, from a genuinely gifted, warm and engaging and seriously courageous performer: really, the only sadness is that Ellen would ever have not recognized herself in that description.