Francesca Moody Productions
We’re a long way from Richard Gadd’s days of starting his comedy set walking round the stage dressed up in a mattress whilst singing "Agadoo". In fact, it’s almost impossible to believe this is the very same Richard Gadd, telling a bleakly honest and chilling tale about his four-year ordeal with a stalker.
In his 2016 comedy show, Monkey See Monkey Do, Gadd took what I can only imagine must have felt like a terrifying risk, disclosing a traumatic sexual assault that near destroyed his life. But even with this level of emotional exposure and vulnerability, Gadd was still somehow working within the bounds of comedy.
In Baby Reindeer, directed by Jon Brittain, Gadd shirks off the safe bounds of comedy completely and delves head-first into documentary-thriller: Gadd is 25 and working in a pub, as all aspiring comedians are wont to do, when he meets Martha, an eccentric woman in her forties clearly in need of a bit of chat, and gives her a cup of tea. What he doesn’t realise is that for Martha, this small act of kindness is the beginning of a deep obsession that will lead to four years of turning up at every one of his gigs (is she among us this very night?), calling his dad, attacking and cyber-bullying his girlfriend, sending thousands of sexually explicit e-mails and filling up 33 hours of his voicemail on a weekly basis.
The fact of Gadd’s comic background isn’t wasted. In fact, there are multiple moments when what could be perceived as a joke is delivered, the audience laughs, but the laugh almost immediately dies on realising that this woman is real, that she actually caused serious harm and that she herself is severely unwell. It’s an interesting pointer to the way we deal with mental health, so often trying to see the humour rather than considering the very serious implications.
Gadd points to the broken system’s inability to help in such situations: in the blatant sexism, considering female stalkers a much lesser threat, and male victims an oxymoron. There seems little in the way of psychological or emotional support for either party and the onus is nearly entirely on the victim to bring their assailant to justice.
Gadd also doesn’t let himself off the hook, which is perhaps his brilliance, giving true dimension to the story. With details like realising his unhealthy, somewhat sexual attachment to Martha, for example, or his inability to give his trans girlfriend the respect she deserves, the audience sees that Gadd is not leaning on dramatic effect for this story, nor is he blind to his own part in this misery. He is simply trying to tell the truth.
Considering Monkey See Monkey Do was performed entirely on a treadmill, it should hardly surprise the audience that Gadd appears to run the length of a marathon in this performance, darting nimbly about the stage, playing every and any character necessary. He also fares remarkably well on a fast-spinning platform centre-stage used semi-regularly for dramatic effect. The use of technology should also come as no surprise if you’re familiar with Gadd’s previous work. Four screens surround the stage, showing Martha’s e-mails and voicemail transcripts. We also hear first-hand recordings from Gadd’s mother, father, landlady, and Martha herself, leaving screeching, terrifying messages threatening Gadd and his family.
For those in the back, I’ll repeat: Baby Reindeer is not a comedy. It is not some kind of raucous, light-hearted Christmas show about Rudolph’s next of kin. It is, however, a courageous and compelling story, with not a little fear rumbling through the audience as we furtively glance at our neighbour to see if she is a 50-year old woman in pink and purple readying herself to leap at the stage.
Reviewer: Miriam Sallon