“Comedy is an opportunity to disrupt what is human.” – Dan Goodley
A professor, a woman with one leg and a guy with cerebral palsy all go to the theatre together. Must be some sort of joke? Well, actually, throw in a recovering addict with Asperger’s and a rapping former mental patient and you have a full-blown, hilarious comedy night.
Last week, Manchester’s Dancehouse Theatre saw the seemingly unlikely bedfellows that are disability, academia and comedy combine to produce an evening that was both genuinely thought-provoking and hysterical. Organised by Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Humanities in Public Festival, as part of the ‘Human Trouble: Dis/ability’ strand, ‘No Laughing Matter?’ was headlined by internationally-acclaimed stand-up comedian Laurence Clark and featured Bethany Black, Jackie Hagan and Lizzie Allan.
Compere, Professor Dan Goodley of the University of Sheffield, introduced the performances, each of which addressed – in their own inimitable way – important issues about what it means to be disabled in contemporary UK society. Each act presented a true challenge to commonly held preconceptions about disability and not one disappointed in terms of laughs.
Laurence Clark, who appeared in 2012 BBC documentary, We Won’t Drop The Baby, delivered an intelligent, punch-line packed headline set focussing on his experiences of living with cerebral palsy. His observational style, teamed with hilarious hidden camera footage and cutting one-liners saw Clark deliver a five star show, if you get chance to see him live, do not miss it.
Opening the show, Lizzie Allen, self-titled ‘mental patient turned comedian,’ hit the stage first with a raucous ‘Hello Wembley!’ Her unique comedy focussed on her experience of mental health treatment 15 years ago when she was sectioned after a drug-induced psychosis in Thailand. She described the lead up to this as ‘the perfect Thai fusion – sun, sea, sand and speed.’ After not enough sleep and too many drugs, Allen had a mental breakdown or ‘spiritual awakening’ which saw “time remove its linear narrative,” taking her on a journey of telepathy, self-discovery, and a short stint of being ‘Lesbian Jesus.’ With her, “short hair and boyish good-looks,” Lizzie poked fun at mental health stereotypes before delivering a heart-felt, typically energetic rap she wrote under section.
Jackie Hagan was next to hit the stage with an early contender for best introduction of 2015 – “You’ll notice there’s something funky going on. Where people usually have a tube of meat, I have a tube of glitter.” Back in 2013, Jackie’s leg was amputated. She said, “That summer, I got that big ball of perspective, it was funny and terrifying and I came away with one less leg and loads more understanding.” Jackie’s experience of, “the whole leg thing” and self-appreciation (what she terms “aggressive self-acceptance”) is the drive of her set. Despite suffering from grief, chronic pain and Fuch’s (yes, she finds it funny too) dystrophy, Jackie prefers to focus on the things in life she is grateful for. Her rampant optimism did not rub off on fellow hospital patient ‘Edna’, however, whom Jackie described as looking like “a threadbare tennis ball.”
Finally, Bethany Black, a stand-up comedian from Chorley, went on to deliver her set, which featured embarrassing true stories from her daily life. Black, who has been entertaining UK audiences since 2001, spoke openly about the awkward one-liners due to her Asperger’s syndrome. Her honest, self-deprecating style had the audiences laughing along as she pushed the boundaries. She poked fun at her history of drug use in her early twenties, however, Bethany is now in recovery, having been clean and sober from drink and drugs for 8 years. She said, “The warning signs were there – If you’ve ever found yourself carrying a frozen chicken as a back story for buying tin foil – that’s not what you’re cooking… ” Lesbian sex, fisting and getting chatted up by drunken fans also featured in Black’s set which, for obvious reasons, saw Leala Crook, the evening’s British Sign Language interpreter, become an integral part of the act.
After the show, Humanity Hallows caught up with Dr Lucy Burke, Principal Lecturer in the Department of English at MMU and co-convenor of the Human Trouble events, to ask how about the motivations for organising this great event. Lucy told us,
“We wanted to use comedy as a way of revealing and disrupting dominant attitudes towards disability and disabled people. Disability is conventionally viewed in terms of tragedy or loss or — and this is problematic – as a source of inspiration. Our aim was to bring together comedians for whom the lived experience of difference is the starting point for their humour. Laughter is a very powerful form of identification. We wanted to harness this shared experience to expose the limits of particular ways of thinking about disability and to cause some human trouble.”
For more information about Human Trouble and other Humanities in Public events please visit hssr.mmu.ac.uk/hip/