TOURING: HarleQueen (Abby Howells)

Review by Nathan Joe

[Queens of Comedy]

Abby Howells’ HarleQueen is mini-history lesson folded into personal storytelling slash standup comedy routine. After its successful original run during Wellington and Dunedin Fringe, where it swept up a few awards, it’s returned in preparation for its Adelaide tour next year. 

And it’s the perfect type of show to go over the pond: simple in design but containing huge heart. Staged upstairs from the Dunedin University Bookshop, this particular production functions perfectly fine without traditional theatre lights and no black box stage. The ease in which this barren found space is transformed into a theatrical canvas is a testament to Abby’s ability to hold an audience and stir our imaginations. She doesn’t perform with the overt confidence of most comics but with an unassuming ease and undeniable charm. 

The title and premise of Abby’s show is an exploration of comedy queens through the ages, such as the likes of Jane Foole, Mabel Norman, Beatrice Lille, Terri Rogers, Moms Mabley, and Joan Rivers. The thing that binds these women together and to Abby is not just a shared love of making people laugh, but a deeper sense of adversity against the society they live in, often a highly patriarchal one. 

But stitched through this tapestry of rich personalities is her own personal story, which traverses a love of musical theatre (featuring references to Phantom of the Opera and CATS), boy problems, and her impeded relationship with stand up comedy. 

Theatre, comedy and the entertainment business isn’t always kind to its outsiders, despite often being sold as their domain. And that’s the harsh lesson that Abby discovers and shares with us through her journey. Despite this dark undercurrent, the show is never loses its humorous and joyous edge. This is ultimately a celebration of overcoming adversity. 

Anya Tate Manning’s direction is invisible – which is precisely what you want from such a personal show. It’s the sort of directorial vision that is in service to the story and its character, Abby herself. It’s a performance that is given an off the cuff vibe but feels tightly structured and considered at the same time. The play’s use of cards is a clever device that pays off dividends, first to showcase the female icons themselves (from Mabel Normand to Joan Rivers), and operating as silent movie intertitles for a delightful moment of pantomime. 

The script is a subtle piece of intricate writing, in that it weaves the stories of these female icons with Abby’s own personal journey utterly seamlessly, the patchwork of all the themes piecing together to create something that has deeply political resonances without coming off preachy. 

Though the celebration is told through a female lens, Abby doesn’t go out of her way to demonise the men in the stories. The women are the stars of the show, and the men merely insecure roadblocks. But it does speak to a legacy of misogyny and jealousy that has thwarted talented women in history, especially just as they were about to blossom. But, despite all this, the women get the last laugh. This is a story of resilience and perseverance. 

And sound, operated by Alex Wilson, is a bonus easter egg (at least for this production). As Abby’s partner, it’s a deeply moving moment where his positive presence in her life is acknowledged, playing as a corrective to the negative male figures in the narrative. 

HarleQueen reminds us that the best revenge is success. It’s doubtful there’ll be a better underdog story you’ll see all year. At once deeply hilarious, heartwarming and inspiring. It’s the type of show that might just convince audiences that they can do anything they set their minds to.

Nathan Joe saw HarleQueen in Dunedin. It is currently playing in Wellington at BATS theatre until 5 October. 

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