Artists for Brexit were invited to the Backyard Comedy Club, on Tuesday, Sept 11, to sample London’s eclectic mix of comedy and theatre. TL;DR: It was fantastic.
On a rustic stage Dan Evans emcees the evening, masterfully parrying with a heckler within a largely appreciative audience. His observational comedy is peppered with self-aware (occasionally cheesy) one liners that always hit their mark.
Where are we? The Backyard Comedy Club, in Bethnal Green, East London. It promises a take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred, freewheeling symposium of comedy that’s brazenly unafraid of political correctness or offence. Here, once a month, free speech is king.
Up next Jay Handley offers a salacious take on race, culture and gender that while edgy, is masterfully blended with moments of deeper insight that mix seamlessly within his more controversial material. After some well-aimed jabs at identify politics and labels (and yes, even a few d*** jokes), he moves on to racial privilege “…Its weird being white..” he begins, “its kinda like being raceless…that’s the privilege of being white – your race is the small print.”
A funeral dirge starts playing next, as Andrew Doyle walks solemnly towards the stage, dressed in black, dead-pan but with a distinct hint of mischief on his face. He pulls down a screen and the lights dim further. This is the memorial service for Godfrey Elfwick, a satirist self-labeled as a ‘Genderqueer Muslim Atheist, born white in the #WrongSkin’ who became collateral damage in Twitter's battle to censor its own platform.
Doyle samples Elfwick’s more insightful parody on identity politics, popular culture and privilege, offering controversial gems on the screen behind him, while narrating a ‘eulogy’ of Elfwick before his (er, Xir’s) untimely Twitter demise. It was an interesting format and hits home the consequences of subjective censorship.
As Michael Lightfoot, Director of Artists For Brexit later commented, “the deletion of Elfwick’s much loved account by Twitter felt to many as if a line had finally been irrefutably crossed in the broader culture. Others who had previously been purged by Twitter, due to the general tone of their politics, perhaps had not been so keenly missed, yet when it came to Elfwick, to many comedians and their supporters, as well as to many people who simply love good satire, it felt that Twitter had now finally come for one of their own.”
While I am tempted to be disappointed at its short length, it left me wanting more.
The lights go up and we get a short intermission. Here I spot some famous faces in the Battle for Brexit. Lucy Harris (of Leavers of London) was kind enough to offer her thoughts on why so few comedians appear to be Leavers, “I think they are scared of not getting signed,” she begins, “I think they are scared of getting socially outcasted. That’s the same for many of us, actually… coming from big remain areas, if you say the wrong thing you’ve lost a friend and I don’t think people want to do that in the comedy world.”
Speaking of Brexit, as we sit down again we are treated to a delicious teaser for authors, Julie Burchill and Jane Robin’s play, ‘People Like Us’ which, while written in support of the Leave campaign, skewers in equal measure Remainers and Leavers alike. It was an even-handed take on an emotionally volatile subject delivered by quirky and capable thespians. Brexit (unless exclusively critical of it) appears to be a very much a taboo topic in London. Later, I asked Jane about ‘off-limits’ subjects and she explained that she’d ‘rather be uncomfortable in a world of offence, then have to censor’ herself.
Red Richardson up next provides us with an unholy glimpse of how he got here, and the incongruity between his deadpan delivery and his jarring (and occasionally crass) speech has the audience roaring (and the lady next to me laughing to tears). He offers this career advice: ‘Richard Branson tells us...If you are offered a job but don’t have the skills–take that opportunity. Learn the skills later. What I’ve learned from that is …never fly Virgin Airlines.’ Good advice.
The headline of the show bounces up on stage after a quick break. Shappi Khorsandi, bursting with unbridled energy, offers an earnest take on her upbringing, swiping at online critics and the market place of identity politics she felt informed a short-listing for her novel, Nina is Not Okay. She acerbically explains why she withdrew, on the basis of it being a BAME prize, ‘Brown...I was short-listed because I’m brown? That makes me feel like a crayon.’ She later articulates that moment between two strangers when you just know you can trust someone with your humour, a dangerous risk when causing offence can have damaging consequences. I think we’ve all been there.
Deliciously charming, she punches up, taking clever aim at her connections to Islam: “am I going to lose my job?” she quips to laughing hijabis in the front row (who, inadvertently torpedo a punchline by making a request for their favourite material).
The show was refreshingly varied and not too political, reminiscent of a time before comedy became weaponized and just another sacrifice to the altar of political correctness. The performers themselves represented a broad church; I would have difficulty guessing which party they support.
There was something missing, however. Something I had not appreciated until later reflecting. Trump was missing. Delightfully absent. It was a glorious novelty in an era when the POTUS is too often used as a foundation for most entertainment, having long since moved from observational jabs to nearly unhealthy obsession.
We learned a lot tonight, but mostly that the aim is not to make offensive comedy, but to be unafraid of doing so. Because, as Andy Doyle told me that night, “Comedy is about pushing boundaries.”
Well done, guys. A+