I saw someone who is fast becoming my favourite comedian this weekend and I want to talk about the show. There are serious spoilers for Savage, Alice’s first show, and some discussion of death. This isn’t trying to be a review: my review of her show is: it’s great, and it won’t be for everyone, but I think you should see it anyway. This is more in the way of trying to work out, for myself, why it’s so good. If you want to listen to the show first, so it’s not spoiled for you, you can.
There is a woman standing on a stage. There is audio playing, a distinctive pop and hiss and crackle that feels like maybe it was recorded on a tape. The woman standing on the stage is in the recording. The woman standing on the stage is slipping two rings off her left hand: one set with a stone, the other a plain band.
She’s not wearing them on the right finger.
There is another woman in the recording. She sounds tired, and older. There is a distinctive rustle and pressure on the microphone. The younger woman has climbed onto the bed of the older woman.
The woman in the recording laughs. The woman on stage does not. They’re not the same woman. They sound the same, but they’re not the same woman.
The audio stops. There is a beat. And then Alice smiles and says “So – “, and within a minute the audience is roaring with laughter.
And that’s how Savage starts.
Alice ratchets up the tension every minute. She travels purely in tangents, criss-crossing backwards and forwards over the subject that’s really under discussion.
The subject under discussion is her mum. Every time the conversation turns to her we get a couple of inches of understanding; a little shift in our perspective that says things were worse than they seemed before she flies off on another tangent. I don’t think you can face that kind of pain head on. I think maybe you have to work your way up to it.
So we criss-cross our way towards something painful that exerts its own sort of dreadful emotional gravity lead by this brilliant woman who, just before we all set off together, said:
There are gonna be points in this show when you’re not sure if you should laugh or feel sorry for me. I suggest you laugh. If you don’t laugh, this shit still happened. But it will have happened for nothing.
and that’s just a masterful piece of writing. At once, she’s bringing us along and at the same time warning us that it’s going to get dark and at the same time ratcheting up the tension, because comedy is where tension is punctured. It’s catharsis.
Tell you what though, in the moment it’s very jarring. It’s like going on a school trip and one of the teachers solemnly turning around and saying,
Listen, there may be a time in the near future when we’ll have to eat each other. I want you to know that so you can be at peace with it
because your instant reaction will surely be “What the fuck does this guy know that I don’t?”
And we’re still criss-crossing, except now the stories are getting more balanced. The jokes at the beginning were minor inconvenience with a fun little payoff, and now she’s staring intensely into the audience with eyes that are like the sky and talking about the agony of knowing you’ll be in pain and being unable to do anything about it and, fuck me, the payoff for this has got to be incredible –
and it is. It’s so good. I should have a better adjective but I don’t. How about: it’s so good that the first time you hear it, you miss her talking about how her mum was sick.
There’s another clip. Alice stands quietly on stage. Alice talks quietly to her mum with the sort of mild self-conscious tone that we all get when we’re recording our own voices. Isn’t it odd? We all do it, I think. There’s a little twinge of a BBC accent that sneaks into our voices.
Except she’s Australian so…ABC, I guess?
And then she talks about the bet that we’re all making with our lives and I’m shifting in my seat (and by the squeaking around me, either I’m not alone or there’s a rat orgy taking place nearby) and this is all suddenly very real.
…which is punctured again by a foul-mouthed banjo from the Deep South…
…which is itself meta-punctured by the sudden brazen honesty that flicks out at the end.
It’s weirdly reassuring, she reminds us, that sometimes you’ll stumble upon a map with a big arrow and a red dot that says “YOU ARE HERE.” Thank fuck, you think. There is a me. And I am here.
We’re in the wind-down now. Little half-truths from earlier are revealed, and they feel like the build-up to the reveal of the big truth. It’s the one we’ve been criss-crossing all evening, and I think we all know what it is. We don’t want to say what it is.
We don’t want to think about those two rings: the ring with the stone and the plain band. If we think about the rings, we might imagine we know what they are, and who they came from.
Only the unfinished can contain the infinite, she says. Even something good is only what it is.
She ought to let us sit with that, but instead reminds us that teeth are the only exposed parts of our skeleton because comedy is puncturing tension. The way she pops that moment is almost cruel.
It’s okay. The moment’s coming, with a dreadful inevitability.
Right at the end, Alice plays a final clip of her talking to her mother. They’re joking around. It is hard to listen to. In the silence she slides those two rings back onto the second finger of her left hand.
And then there are seven seconds of silence. And then it’s over.
It doesn’t finish. It just ends.
Only the unfinished can contain the infinite.
We file out one by one. As we leave she offers each of us a hug. It’s an intimate gesture that gives us closure; the inverse of the moment when she looked back at us and said I suggest you laugh. Alice hugs like she means it, like a bear, like I’m genuinely her favourite person in the world right now.
I don’t know how to end this – whatever this thing is. I’m trying to express what an incredible piece of art it is without it being a review. I am trying to say that I understand turning pain into art but I’d never considered that watching someone do it could be art too.
I am trying to say that listening to this show is a thing that you should do because it will change how you think about things and it will give voice to things you knew but did not know you knew and because I know four things now: that buttholes are brown; that they are supposed to be brown; that we are all going to die; and that when Alice Fraser hugs you she hugs you so tight your heart jumps.