‘Baby Reindeer’ review
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Richard Gadd’s brutally uncompromising autobiographical play about his experience of being stalked
This review is from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019. In April 2020 it transfers to the Ambassadors Theatre, following a run at the Bush.
In Richard Gadd’s Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning stand up show ‘Monkey See Monkey Do’, he carefully buried the lede, only revealing towards the end that as a younger man he’d been groomed and sexually abused, and that this had subsequently taken a terrible toll on his mental health and confidence.
Now that he’s completed his inevitable migration to the ‘theatre’ section of the Fringe programme, he’s ready to get serious – no need to mess around with any of that frivolous nonsense like ‘jokes’.
When ‘Baby Reindeer’ begins, we’re not totally sure what the cavalcade of abusive messages being played back off a voicemail represent. But it soon becomes abundantly clear. The autobiographical one-man-play is about Gadd’s experience of being stalked by an older woman, Martha, who he was nice one day, and ended up being persistently harassed by for years. There are no heartwarming Nordic animals - ‘baby reindeer’ is her nickname for him.
Gadd makes very little attempt to see the funny side of the situation, mostly because there isn’t one. But in Jon Brittain’s production, the erstwhile comic uses all his performance chops – honed in years of high concept, low budget, multimedia comedy shows – to turn in an electrifying performance, that starts at a million watts and stays there, as he bounds and leaps around like a man frying himself alive as he tears through his own circuitry.
No detail is too trivial, or too gross, or too personal. And crucially it’s told without an ounce of self-pity. Outrage, yes, especially at the glacially-paced police response. But he is forensic about his own failings in responding maturely to the situation. And the entire thing is shot through with self-loathing and guilt at his complicated relationship with his girlfriend at the time. It has a ruthless ambivalence to it, a refusal to define Gadd’s ordeal in terms of simple black-and-white morality, that renders it almost more upsetting. An empty chair is placed in the performing space; at first it seems to be standing in for Martha; eventually we realise it has been left for her.
Calling this show ‘empowering’ is to ascribe a certain triteness to it that ‘Baby Reindeer’ lacks. In fact I can imagine ways in which it’s probably not empowering. But maybe ‘necessary’ is closer to the truth: Gadd has got this stuff out of his system in a bleakly adrenalised roar of a show, and I hope for his sake it stays out.