Uther Dean’s A Public Airing of Grievances is an odd show for the comedy festival. Not because it lacks laughs. Let’s be clear, it doesn’t. Rather, it’s odd because its laughs never feel like the main objective. The heart of the show is a sprawling yet intimate narrative that covers a brief period of Uther’s life, from the end of a relationship to a moment of personal realisation. This oversimplification sounds trite, but Uther handles it with great subtlety, where the little details have as much significance as the bigger moments. Whether talking about yoghurt, his own name or money, every subject is given the same level of weight and scrutiny, giving it a confessional directness that is more reminiscent of a literary personal essay than anything else.
As a presence, Uther sets the audience at ease, making him an easy protagonist to root for. This is undoubtedly aided by the unconventional venue in a tiny backroom of the Old Folks Association, adding to the informal intimacy of the evening. In a show that is seemingly all about Uther, his fears, struggles and insecurities, he turns it into a story about that human need for connection. And whenever the material seems on the verge of going from melancholy to bitter, Uther undercuts it with just the right amount of self-deprecation or self-awareness.
He’ll often segue into entirely new territory, going on wonderful tangents that eventually reveal themselves to be entirely relevant. It’s a script littered with recurring motifs and images that startle you in surprising ways. Because the storytelling and delivery moves so swiftly you won’t necessarily catch them all, but the ones you do have undeniable power, like stars in the sky forming unexpected constellations.
Some of the jokes, while nicely interwoven into the narrative, do feel less like an organic product of the stories and more an attempt to tell a joke for a joke’s sake. At times the play’s own self-awareness of being a ‘comedy show’ seem to dictate the material, interrupting the almost stream-of-consciousness delivery that Uther seems most at ease with. Whereas an ordinary comedian will setup jokes to knock them down, one after another, Uther is more concerned with setting up an entire narrative, and merely punctuating it with jokes. This is storytelling through and through.
Before you know it the show’s over and has come full circle in a sneakily brilliant way. For a fifty-minute show, it’s an incredibly dense narrative, layers upon layers, folding back onto itself in an incredibly calculated yet inevitable fashion. In lesser hands, it might be impossible to follow, the details obscured by its pretensions, but Uther guides us carefully through the labyrinth depths of his experiences carefully and subtly.
This is an evening full of surprises, where the attentive silences in the audience are just as collective and important as the laughs. Not your usual comedy festival fare, but it’s none the worse for it. Come for the jokes, stay for the pathos.
A Public Airing of Grievances plays at the Old Folks Association until 14 May as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival 2016. Details see Comedy Festival.