REVIEW: Them Fatale (NZ International Comedy Festival)

Review by Erin O'Flaherty

Photo by Andi Crown

[Salacious Satire]

Do you want to find out where your god-shaped hole is and why Jesus is actually a lesbian? Maybe you just want a tantalisingly good night at the theatre. Presented as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival, James Penwarden’s stand-up show Them Fatale will leave you dripping wet with laughter.

Like the deadly Noir seductress eluded to by the show’s title, Penwarden enchants us with their charismatic presence as soon as they enter the stage. They hold the space with mesmeric surety, always a flirtatious sparkle in their eye, and proudly proclaim the multitudes they contain. Like a hapless Noir protagonist, I am hooked. 

Them Fatale is a velvety firecracker of a show – sexy, fun, and clever. Penwarden never misses a single beat, taking us on a journey through Catholicism, identity and queer polyamorous sex. They tease us with a guitar, sprinkling songs throughout and slowly ramping up each section until we are good and ready. Every joke is witty and precisely delivered. Where some comedy sets might lull as they transition from one section to the next, Penwarden’s writing is consistently engaging and smooth, creating a cohesive whole that deftly holds their multifaceted nature.

Penwarden uses their non-binary identity as both a uniting theme and a jumping-off point to explore the ambiguities in human relationships. What does it mean to have gay sex when you’re non-binary? When a straight (cis) person dates a non-binary person, has their sexuality changed? Penwarden provides no easy answers to such questions, instead subtly prodding at our need to place things into simple categories. Their very existence is an example of why this is not only futile but also denies the fundamental complexity of human nature and desire. It is the many shapes and forms that desire can take, and the (sometimes awkward) realities of enacting such desire, that provides the bulk of the hilarious and deeply relatable material.

Of course, their experiences might not be so relatable for everyone; the main demographic for this show is undoubtedly queer folks. But the friction between societal expectations and the messy and fluid realities of relationships is surely something we can all understand. It’s refreshing to see such smart comedy exploring the nature of the queer experience and perhaps bringing this insight to new audiences. As a cis, straight woman I can say I found the show thigh-slappingly funny and very relatable. Indeed, when Penwarden sings about straight women who wish they were gay I feel personally spoken to, and maybe a little confused because those suspenders they’re wearing are really sexy and… I digress. 

Confusion was a major theme in Them Fatale – from the confusion that inevitably ensues when one questions norms of gender and sex, to religious confusion, to the confusion of other people when one tries to explain one’s identity, and (of course) the power of Penwarden’s excellently-chosen outfit to sexually confuse the entire audience. Their black velvet jacket, lacy corset and boxy trousers, along with the red lipstick they sport, gives cabaret vibes, evoking a long theatrical tradition of gender blurring, à la Marlene Dietrich or Joel Grey. But in all this talk of confusion, I never once felt lost. Rather, I felt anchored by Penwarden’s confidence and the superbly crafted journey this show takes.

The Basement Studio was an excellent venue for the piece, providing an intimacy that highlighted Penwarden’s natural charisma. The more serious, heartfelt moments were well-earned, and the show managed to strike a perfect balance between challenging and empowering, and being satirical and silly. James Penwarden is surely a comedy star on the rise.

Them Fatale plays the Basement Theatre 16-20th of May 2023 

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