Hannah Gadsby’s show Dogmatic opened with the promise that this would be a “no woe” show, avoiding the big overarching societal issues and mental health issues that have dominated her previous shows. And sure enough, Gadsby set out instead to milk the mundane idiosyncrasies of her own life – using her characteristically keen eye both to spot the most curious and fantastical elements of her childhood and her recent past, and to find ways to develop them into teachable moments.
She treated each individual story like a song at a pop concert, specifically Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour, hyping up each vignette like a chart-topping hit. She talked about the difficulty of looking after an angry dog, and the way her desire to comically alleviate tension got her into trouble as a kid; the latter segued nicely into a segment about the tenseness of the Disneyland experience. All in all, she opened well, and the crowd became suitably American to match the concert vibe – she got a big round of applause after the end of each story.
The Disneyland segment itself, however, was a bit over the top – using lighting and sound and projection to demonstrate her experience of theme park tension so well that it became very uncomfortable to be in the space. Here, her laser-sharp rhetoric painted too good a picture of her experiences, to the point where it almost became a choreographed breakdown rather than a comedy bit.
I mentioned in my Greg Fleet review that I have some anxiety shit, and I’m fully aware that my reaction to this section might be uncommon. But Gadsby has talked about anxiety in her shows before, and might well have a higher than average number of anxious fans. And besides, it’s not as though I can review the show from anyone else’s perspective. So – if Gadsby’s measure of good comedy is its capacity to alleviate tension, then this section failed me. It left me more tense and uncomfortable than I was going into it.
Coming out of the second section, however, the show became something very different, culminating in a finish that was one of the strongest conclusions to a show I’ve seen in ages. Despite the promise of a “no woe”, very personal show, Gadsby switched gears in the third act, beginning to directly criticise the idea of Taylor Swift as a role model. By the end, the platitudinous ramblings of Swift’s own 1989 concert began to sound a bit more like the thought-policing of Orwell’s 1984. It was utterly incongruous with the first two acts, and yet nonetheless the funniest part of the show.
It’s hard to judge this one. The show was a bit of an experiment for Gadsby, and it didn’t all pay off – as well as the anxious moments, it was hard not to feel a bit lost at times. But I had a great time for the vast majority of it. It was certainly never boring. And I think it’s important to pay due credit to an artist trying new and interesting things.