Edinburgh Fringe Reviews: Living Sober

Three acts getting laughs from alcoholism and addiction.

Feature by Cara McNamara | 12 Aug 2016

Alcoholism is a horrible, corrosive addiction, and it steals your soul, bit by bit. By the same token, redemption stories are inspiring, but not always chucklefodder.

Paul McMullan, Liam Withnail and Eleanor Conway have set themselves a huge challenge, creating comedy from recovery. All of them are in recovery, each mapping blackouts, lightbulb moment and first sober sex along the route. What’s different about them is when they got on the bus.

McMullan [★★] is the most battle-scarred of the three. The child of two alcoholics, every man over 40 in his family died through drink. Over the years he lost his job, his home, and his grip on reality, while somehow gaining custody of his kids and a multitude of stray dogs. It’s hard to make this funny.

Baring your soul for ridicule is not necessarily a good route to comedy, and it’s probably not too healthy for the comedian. However, sober for over a decade, none of this seems too raw for McMullan any more, and he is confident, warm and amiable.
Meanwhile, Liam Withnail [★★★] seems to have fitted in a staggering amount of booze into his young life, admitting that until he stopped drinking, there had barely been a day in the last decade that he hadn’t gone to bed sh*faced. Withnail is a different kind of comedian to McMullan – a less earnest, more roguish circus barker. He strikes an excellent balance of stories about drinking and not drinking (including the horrible video clip which spurred him into giving up booze), interspersed with anecdotes about his pals and general nonsense.

It’s still early doors for him, 13 months in, but he’s acutely aware that he’s got out at the right time. As he says, "I’m 27. Some of the guys I’m doing this [AA] with have lost lot a lot more than me.”

Eleanor Conway [★★★★] well, she’s another kettle of filth. Like a fire that leaps from one building to another, she seems not so much to recover from an addiction than to get bored and spark up another. That’s not to diminish the fact she managed to quit drugs and booze two years ago, despite having hoovered up £20k of Bolivian marching powder beforehand – and her 20 second rendition of a coke-fuelled girls' night out is a perfect, perfect thing.

It’s just that then catapulting into a sex addiction could be seen as the lifestyle equivalent of shoving your food around your plate. From substances, to shagging, to the endorphin rush of gigging, Conway admits she’s still chasing the hit. With a back story indicative of a subsonically low boredom threshold, Conway is chaotic and electric, and deserving of your (cash) donations.

Paul McMullan: Alcopop, Pleasance Courtyard (Bunker Two), 3-28 Aug (not 15), 9.15 pm, £6-12

Liam Withnail: True Defective, Scottish Comedy Festival @ The Beehive Inn, 4-28 Aug (not 15), 5.25 pm, Free

Eleanor Conway's Walk of Shame, Frankenstein, 4-28 Aug (not 15), 7.45 pm, Free