[A Taste of English Pup Humour in Auckland]
What does it mean to be ‘woke’? Urban Dictionary leans toward the definition that involves being more aware and knowing what’s afoot in the community around you. In a tribute to the pursuit of belonging, Sajeela Khershi tells her own story of a journey to being woke in Fights Like a Girl, a stand-up comedy show that seems to be aimed at a loutish, predominantly white cisgender audience.
A celebrated English comic, Khershi reaches out to get to know her audience in the first third of the show, in an effort to discover what stresses she’s dealing with. The audience lob her a couple of tidbits about attachment to faith, attendance at protests and affinity to underwear preferences, and Khershi skillfully retorts with comeback after comeback, establishing a pattern of crass banter that sets the tone. I don’t think the audience was expecting the raucous atmosphere of an English pub walking into Garnet Station’s Tiny Theatre, but Khershi throws a number of crowd-pleasers into the silence gaps, trying to smooth over the audience’s discomfort with zingers that come across as practiced.
We approach the mid-point of the show amid Khershi’s recollections of a childhood in pursuit of belonging as a person of colour growing up in Thatcher’s Britain. The audience has been assigned ‘scandalous’ nicknames like ‘thong’ and ‘speedo’ by this point, and Khershi navigates the difference between the audience’s expectation and the pub-focused target audience of the show by testing out a few profanities between heartfelt vignettes from her own past. She is at her best when she speaks her truth – how her parents made her feel when trotting her out with her siblings as trophies for every house guest at two in the morning, and how out of place she felt with her friends on a pub crawl. We can’t help but relate to her struggle to be herself, and yet the perspective is tempered by a sense that the insights could be more penetrating – particularly in the gaps between anecdotes.
The last third of Fights Like a Girl was the most compelling part of the show, given that it focused entirely on how Khershi arrived at her own epiphany about why men fight so hard to retain patriarchal oppression of women. Khershi did not entirely succeed in connecting with gender-diverse or queer audience members, and I was left wondering why more of the show wasn’t built around speaking to her own memories. Stand-up comedy is notoriously tough to pull off, and it is a credit to Khershi that she was able to find her way to realising that the audience was captivated whenever she spoke from a place of sincerity and vulnerability, which I’d have enjoyed seeing much more of, especially in the earlier parts of the show. I’d recommend this show for those who enjoy the rough and tumble of English pub humour.
Fights Like a Girl plays Garnet Station until 3 March.