Hannah Gadsby: Douglas, Royal Festival Hall, review: 'An impassioned, wild tour through autism, art history and anti-vaxers'

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Comedian Hannah Gadsby
Comedian Hannah Gadsby

“Nanette – that’s why you’re here,” admits Hannah Gadsby, almost as soon as she steps onstage. “I know it’s why I’m here.”

“Here” is a packed-to-the-rafters Royal Festival Hall, a world away from the poky venues where the Tasmanian comic had been plugging away with mixed success for a decade until, in 2017, she decided to quit comedy for good.

Nanette was supposed to be Gadsby’s bridge-burning farewell to the business – an impassioned hour that challenged the idea of stand-up, arguing that making self-deprecating jokes for a living was unhealthy and self-destructive.

As a retirement plan, it backfired terribly. Nanette won the world’s most prestigious stand-up prize – the Edinburgh Comedy Award – and became a Netflix mega-hit, prompting countless think-pieces and a world tour. 

How on earth do you follow that? With a show that’s a bit of everything, Gadsby explains, in a wry opening designed to lower expectations. “I hate surprises,” she tells us, and so offers “a detailed, blow-by-blow description of what to expect” at the outset. There will be storytelling, needling of the patriarchy, a bit of conventional stand-up, some naff wordplay (“If you don’t like puns, you’re f---ed”), a lecture, an awkward sex story and a bundle of silly sight-gags to end the show. Oh, and around halfway through, “I’m going to tell you that I have autism in a way that will feel like a big reveal”. 

If Nanette was all about making the audience uncomfortable, her new show Douglas proves Gadsby knows exactly how to put them at their ease, while gently making the point that her autism is just one part of her personality among many. Aside from that meta-theatrical introduction (the only bit that outstays its welcome) this is a conventional, yet effortlessly wide-ranging, show – at once the perfect showcase for the 41-year-old’s full skill-set, and a riposte to the “haters” who, after Nanette, deemed Gadsby more a monologuist than a comedian. Two hours without an interval fly by.

Gadsby is funniest, and most confident, in a section on art history (the subject of her Radio 4 series Arts Clown) which collides high- and low-brow in unexpected ways; one moment she’s analysing how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles misrepresent the Italian Renaissance, the next she’s ogling the Sistine Chapel ceiling (“F--k, these god-bods are hot!”). 

The art lecture is partly so good because she lets her passion for the material shine through, loosening up from her usual deadpan style. A bit about her “pufferfish moments” of “impotent fury” - Rhod Gilbert-esque outbursts of petty rage over everything from golf to Where’s Wally? books - brings a similar sense of wild abandon.

Performing Nanette at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2017 Credit: Performing Nanette at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2017

Elsewhere, Douglas is light on bellylaughs. Well-turned aphorisms are more Gadsby’s thing; her best zingers could work on a T-shirt. That gift for lyric concision is put to serious use when she reaches the section on her autism. On how it makes her see the world differently: “It’s not a prison, it’s a prism - that’s why they call it a spectrum.” 

Like all the best stand-up, it’s an act of empathy. You are invited to see the world through her eyes, to understand why her idea of a fun weekend is rearranging furniture, or just quietly sitting at home alone thinking: “I only have to think about the word ‘oblong’ and I’m off to a good day.” That charming riff brings a real sting to what follows, a section addressed to anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists. Even if the MMR jab “caused autism” (which, of course, it does not) could any of them look her in the eye after hearing this and explain what’s supposed so bad about autism, anyway?

Hannah Gadsby’s show Douglas is at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday Oct 27 (hannahgadsby.com.au) and touring