Rhod Gilbert’s new show walks a perfect knife-edge between tragedy and comedy

Rhod Gilbert

Emily Garside

Rhod Gilbert is back on tour after six years. And it’s been an eventful six years.

‘Strap in Cardiff’ he says after listing that, among other things, the show will be about; his Mum’s death, his Dad’s heart attack, his stroke and infertility. So far so cheery right?

Never has a show balanced so perfectly between ‘laugh until you cry’ and just plain ‘cry’. But more than that, because it’s easy to make an audience cry or feel sad, there’s a primal tapping into raw grief and pain that Gilbert’s comedy achieves without ever losing the comedic brilliance.

And that’s what makes this show so important – it might be a massive comedy tour taking in venues from the Motoropoint Arena to the Eventimin Apollo, but it’s also a show that feels incredibly intimate and personal. And it is a reminder of the real intelligence and power behind truly great comedy.

Gilbert uses ‘The Book of John’ to frame his show. John being the driver he hired because of the stroke, and the funeral, and the sick parent. And John becomes an unwitting witness and narrator to this slice of Gilbert’s life.

It’s delivered with the characteristic exuberance, and low boiling rage anyone who knows Gilbert’s previous comedy will be familiar with. And it feels almost like a late coming of age story to hear him reference the previous ‘petty rages’ he spent his other shows railing about.

Brilliantly, and as a nod to the fans who have been with him for years, he recounts at once all the things his other shows have centred on – the annoying things in life. And while these yes, petty rages (from Tog ratings to Jacket Potatoes) have always been metaphors for larger things, and his ‘Man with the Flaming Battenberg Tattoo Tour’ also ended on a resonant note, this feels like an evolution of his comedy.

Which is not to dismiss the previous work Gilbert has done – it feels like the journey from raging at Tog ratings and fallouts with girlfriends to losing a parent and health scares has been a journey through life itself. And perhaps the comedy of the latter is almost better because it comes from a real, and sometimes raw place. (That said, rage at a duvet is equally a real and raw thing).

Like many comedians, he is not above mocking himself and the stroke he had, but does it with real honesty about the fear around that and facing mortality.

As well as the touching decision to not only have bucket collections for related charities, but to also donate some of the profits of the tour to charity, his talking about these issues does much good for the cause also.

Gilbert’s show will probably stick in the mind of those 5,000 people last night in terms of signs for stroke, more than any public service information. And that’s not to be discounted.

Comedy is often a soapbox, from petty causes to politics. So why not use that soapbox to raise some awareness, do some good, while also getting a bloody good laugh?

Rare

What should also not be discounted is the power with which talking about illness, and grief also challenges the taboos around them. And none more so than infertility.

In most of the second act, Gilbert describes his typically hapless attempts at fertility treatment. He says at the start it’s worse for his wife, medically and emotionally.

But actually, what he does here is important – few people and few opportunities arise for men to talk about what trying for and failing to have a baby feels like. The feeling of not being able to give the person you love most in the world what they want.

We know men are a lot worse at talking about their emotions than women, and particularly for a subject that does in fairness affect a woman more directly, it’s still important with men in that situation to engage with what they feel.

And while yes, there’s material for many a wanking joke and more detailed descriptions of semen than have possibly graced a stage before. But at the same time where else have these things been talked about so openly?

Laughter is a primal response, much like anger and as a result, it sits very closely with grief – which is essentially what Gilbert’s show is about.

Gilbert describes sitting in the back of that car, laughing at what John had said, on the way to his Mother’s funeral, encapsulates that the line between laughing and crying is like a knife-edge at times of grief.

He hits on what it is to be human and dealing with grief. You’re probably not supposed to admit to hysterical laughter or having a row over baked goods on the way to a parent’s funeral.

But that’s far more human than delicate weeping at a graveside. And it is beautifully poignant at the same time.

‘You either laugh or you cry’ because those two emotions sit so closely. Sometimes we laugh because we can’t cry any more. Sometimes we cry because we laugh too, because something hits so hilariously ridiculously close to our own experience that it is hilarious, but also touching. And that is a powerful thing.

Comedy is so much about observing the world around us but rarely does a comedian truly reflect on things that affect us deeply and personally as Gilbert does in this show. Comedy is an often overlooked artform for commentary on not just politics and the world around us, but on what it means to be human.

Rhod Gilbert might be that recognisable ‘man off the telly’ but what he offers in this new tour is something poignant and personal that is more affecting than many a ‘serious drama’ precisely because it walks that knife edge of comedy and tragedy so perfectly.

Dates for Rhod Gilbert’s show can be found here.


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