Review-“Don’t Be Terrible”-by Ellen Waddell and Oliver Milburn

Don’t Be Terrible purports to ask if stand up can save your love life, and it does so by having affable Nice Man Steve attempt to win back his disinterested girlfriend by learning the art of comedy from jaded stand up Alice. What it actually does, in an impeccably acted and tightly written hour, asks what comedy really does for us, both as producers and consumers, and what it’s like when you don’t quite get (or suspect you are the butt of) the joke that surrounds you, especially if you’re a genuinely nice man trying not to fall into the dreaded Nice Guy trap.

Balancing comedy and theatre can be tricky but here the show is funny enough to keep you smiling for an hour and touching enough to never stop being an engaging play. The acting is nailed on throughout, including some impressively difficult physical moments. Though the show wouldn’t suffer from playing to a larger audience, there’s a particular level of immersion in a smaller room, especially at some of the darker points where the tension between the actors and audience is palpable enough to blur the fourth wall slightly.

The characters are drawn well enough to be relatable to a point where you don’t always have to like them, and the dialogue inhabitable without slipping into cliche right through to the painfully sweet conclusion where things are never quite OK because they aren’t, but at least we can laugh at them. Smart, real and sometimes brutally honest in a way only comedy can be, this is a funny, affecting and darkly comforting world to inhabit for an hour.

Review: “It’s Better To Lie Than To Tell The Truth And End Up Alone InA Ditch Crying” by Ellen Waddell

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.


Book Review: Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessey

I love a good Young Adult novel, you know. It’s come on a lot from my mid 90s school library cache where boyfriends were occasionally killed by fridges (not messing) and there was some bizarre series set in some kind of hospice which pre did the Fault In Our Stars twist BUT WITH AIDS. Must track those down, nobody ever believes me. But yes. Anyway.

These days what I tend to enjoy about them is where they dig into an Issue. You don’t seem to get this with books aimed at adults, presumably because we’re all supposed to have our lives under control and know where we stand with everything and OH GOD WHO LEFT ME IN CHARGE I’M SCARED GUYS. Unless I’m just reading the wrong books. It should be evident that much is above my level.

I get very peeved about Book Snobbery as a thing in general, and in particular the idea that something aimed at a young audience has nothing to teach adults. I mean, we learned nothing from Twilight other than “sparkly vampires don’t like period blood EURGH GROSS” but you might be menstruating near some sparkly vampires one of these days and that’ll get you out of a tight spot.

Anyway, I had an eye out for this book already and managed to nab a proof copy, like I get so many things, by being snarky on Twitter. I had some concerns though, with a YA novel about eating disorders. There are a fair number, which is fair enough, given it’s a potentially fatal culture bound illness that effects mainly women in their late teens. Not a problem. The problem is: some of them are such bloody good advertising.

Now I’m a grown woman (according to my council tax bill) and I’ve gone up against the leery advances of my own eating disorder and other people’s similar but always very different versions more times than I care to recall. I have a thing where I collect books with any sort of mental health theme so I can recommend them and use them as discussion points with people I see at work. It’s a good way of making a connection. Trouble with the eating disorder ones is that with the best of intentions, they end up serving as instruction manuals. It’s not the author’s intention, certainly; I’d wager most of them don’t know that much about the wily nature of the beast and how the anorexic mind in particular stores up absolutely any information it can use against its host at a later date. So you get these lovely, lyrical, heartfelt, brutal beautiful stories littered with calorie counts (*grits teeth*), low-lower-lowest weights, (*sucks air through teeth*) starvation diet plans (*squeaks a little bit*) and handy techniques for fucking with a weigh in (OH COME ON LADS). But then, I thought, is there a way of showing an eating disorder for what it is without feeding it sly information?

So it turns out there is. And it’s here. In this book. Where the anorexic narrator has no body.


So our intrepid narrator Annabel, having recently shuffled off this mortal coil due to her illness (no nasty death bed details here either) has been tasked with the emotional welfare of her stressed out, love sick and somewhat adrift classmate-in exchange for which she will be permitted to send a message to her family from an afterlife the nature of which is never quite clear (though our heroine gets in a few sly digs about Christmas films and celestial social workers-there’s no one quite so equipped to guide you through an emotional maelstrom than a therapeutically resistant teenage girl on a favour) And faced with her subject Julia’s career uncertainty, romantic inadequacy and general sense that all is not as it should be, Annabel thinks: what this girl really needs is to lose weight!

Because she might have escaped her physical form, and therefore no longer needs her scales or MyFitnessPal, but she sure as hell hasn’t escaped the sure and certain knowledge that all women have drilled into their bones that when they feel bad, they feel fat. And thus, she embarks on fixing Julia’s malaise by providing the hissing, spitting inner monologue that all of us with “food issues” will know all too well. And to begin with, it works. Because that’s what it does. Doesn’t it?

So follows Julia’s travails on the school newspaper, her awkward friendship with the girl who took Annabel’s school place, and her soul crushingly second best status with a Stupid Boy and the Stupid Cow ahead of her are medicated, at first, by her new project. Annabel, meanwhile, takes to spying on her deeply troubled younger sister, her very fragile hospital BFF and another ward mate who has taken to writing earnest recovery poetry taking Annabel’s name in vain. Even theminor snapshots of this cast of characters are so well drawn I could probably decipher their usernames and logins on any social networking site, past or present, and have a good guess at their profile pictures too.

More so as the wheels begin coming off for both girls, as the real causes of Julia’s unrest begin to unfold and leave Annabel flailing as she becomes painfully aware that she didn’t perfect herself after all: she merely opted out of the whole game. There’s a brutal passage in Trainspotting where one of the main characters explains the benefits of heroin addiction: without it there’s all sort of problems to address, with it all you need to think about is when you’re getting more heroin. And that, for me, is what this story does for anorexia: removes the body, removes the numbers, removes the high stakes (I mean, she’s dead before the book starts!) and exposes the aching bewilderment at the heart of the monster, with a gentle suggestion that this is maybe how it becomes an option for brave and bright and fierce and sharp and intelligent girls (and boys), even ones whose eyes are as permanently rolled to the heavens as I suspect Annabel’s would be. And as we wrap up with a page-crackingly tense showdown with the forces of douchebaggery which I won’t spoil here, it becomes increasingly apparent to both girls that if you want to get rid of your monsters, you don’t eat them, or starve them, you have to name them. Because on paper, they lose their majesty and really, they can’t hurt you at all.

Take it from an adult woman with an over fondness for natural yoghurt, an embarrassing past of Internet personas comprised entirely from Manic Street Preachers lyrics and a list of books she holds out like charms to anyone on her way who looks lost. On which, this book holds a prized space, with not a number in sight.