Hannah Gadsby @ Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Hannah Gadsby returns with her trademark tension and release in Douglas, the follow-up to the hugely successful Nanette

Review by Emma Sullivan | 05 Nov 2019
  • Hannah Gadsby @ Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Hannah Gadsby’s last show, Nanette, achieved almost iconic status. Intended as a farewell to comedy, it provoked huge amounts of commentary for its refusal to play trauma for laughs, and revealed the cost of exploiting personal pain for comic ends. Its massive success changed her mind, however, and she’s back with a new show, Douglas.

While she’s quick to tell those of us hungry for more of the same that she’s ‘fresh out of trauma’, her approach this time isn’t dissimilar: telling us beforehand exactly how and when the big reveal will occur, and furthermore, just how we will respond. This seemingly audacious gambit cleverly creates a series of comedic call-backs; a strategy which increases our satisfaction as we recognise her subsequent moves. And when it comes, the much-trailed reveal – her diagnosis of autism – is both a throwaway line and a brilliant piece of tension release.  

Gadsby showed in Nanette the significance of tension and its release to successful comedy. Given that this early disclosure of her diagnosis is part of a tacit refusal to position autism as dramatic or, indeed, traumatic, this compels her to look elsewhere for tension. She does this by ‘baiting the haters’, ‘needling the patriarchy’, and raging against anti-vaxxers and their part in pathologising autism. Structurally these antagonists serve their purpose, and her skill is such that we are almost persuaded of her audacity in taking them on, but ultimately they remain easy targets. 

There’s no doubt, however, that this is a brilliant and beautifully crafted show, and, for all the weighty material, one that is crammed with gorgeous gags. The virtuosic ending is particularly pleasing, as her art history ‘lecture’ dissolves into one daft observation after another. It's a sequence of skilful silliness – and perfectly engineered tension release - which renders us helpless with laughter. 

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas, touring, including Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 21 Nov – win tickets to Gadsby's Glasgow show in our competition (closes 17 Nov)