“The question is,” says David Baddiel a short while into the second half of his one-man show about his parents. “What damage has this done to me?” Well, he is standing on stage in a packed theatre talking about his late mother’s masturbation habits and the noises his father used to make when he had sex – a cross between a wounded walrus and Chewbacca, apparently – so something might have gone a bit awry.
This is Baddiel’s new show, which for all its theatrical setting, is a consummate stand-up set in two halves.It takes as it shocking, sad, and improbably very funny subject matter, his mother, Sarah, who died two years ago and his father, Colin, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of dementia around the same time.The symptoms of Pick’s disease include uncontrolled swearing, sexual disinhibition, mood swings and extreme impatience. “Sorry, does he have a disease, or have you just met him?” quips Baddiel.
Both events, found the comedian, brought out the worst kind of sentimentality in the people around him. Tired of being blandly told how “wonderful” his parents were, he has written them this “twisted love letter”, a show that shares in jaw-dropping detail “their weirdnesses, their madnesses and their flaws.”
It starts slowly, too slowly, with a bit of Powerpoint about Twitter jokes (yawn) and the boundaries of comedy. Who would dare tell him that it’s “too soon” to make jokes about his own dead Mum? No-one, and so off he goes.
A few gentle proud Jewish mother jokes lull the audience into cozy chuckledom before Baddiel delivers his sucker punch – a forensically, therapeutically detailed account of his mother’s long-time affair with a golfing enthusiast called David White. She was, it seemed, punishingly open about her bearded lover, leaving letters to him around the house, recording their phone conversations and, in one unbelievable moment, cc-ing her own sons into her smutty emails to him, “like Dollis Hill’s very own Erica Jong.” If Baddiel didn’t make it so very funny, it would be really quite sad.
His father is given less stage time, presumably because he is still alive. Dementia has made him into a “Spitting image puppet of himself,” turning the volume up on his least respectable qualities.
Still, the comedian relentlessly shuns the sentimental, showing a clip from a promotional video for his father’s care home in which he starred. A week later, his father was banned from the home for punching a fellow patient on his big nose.
Baddiel freely admits that he is using his defenseless parents for material, to nudge the boundaries of what we can and can’t say. There are few happy memories in his family portrait – perhaps some things are private – but a lot of laughs. “I worry about if it’s what she would have wanted,” he says, eyebrow raised at the end. So do we, but then death and dementia have no truck with boundaries or respectability either. Baddiel is not the first to do a stand-up show about the loss of a parent but it’s rare to see one that draws its subject as honestly, vividly, and humorously as this.
Four stars for My Family: Not the Sitcom, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, to 25 June
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