Rhod Gilbert- The Book of John

I never review comedy. I’m a massive comedy nerd. I could probably talk your ear off about comedy structure more than theatre. But I’ve always kept it as my thing ‘for me’ rather than work. But I’m breaking that one for this show. Never has a comedy show been so perfectly pitched comedically but also moved me as much as Rhod Gilbert’s current tour.

Never has a show balanced so perfectly between ‘laugh until you cry’ and just plain ‘cry’. But more than that, because it’s easy to make an audience cry or feel sad, there’s a primal tapping into raw grief and pain that Gilbert’s comedy achieves without ever losing the comedic brilliance.
‘Strap in Cardiff’ he says after listing that, among other things the show will be about; his Mum’s death, his Dad’s heart attack, his stroke and infertility. So far so cheery right?
Gilbert uses ‘The Book of John’ to frame his show. John being the driver he hired because of the stroke, and the funeral, and sick parent to deal with. And John becomes an unwitting witness and narrator to this slice of Gilbert’s life.
And it’s delivered with the characteristic exuberance, and low boiling rage anyone who knows Gilbert’s previous comedy will be familiar with. Brilliantly he recounts at once all the things his other shows have centred on- the small and petty rage against the annoying things in life. And while these petty rages (from Tog ratings to Jacket Potatoes) have always been metaphors for larger things, it’s also an indication of the evolution of Gilbert’s comedy here. I don’t want to say ‘maturity’ because there’s a danger in dismissing the things we go through- and yes, the things that irritate the living shit out of us- in our younger decades, are somehow less ‘significant’. They aren’t, and yet there is a sense of this show facing up to the ‘bigger’ things in life and leaving the candle wattage of bulbs and the last sandwich behind.
And it’s the honesty in which these things are discussed and should be discussed. Like many comedians not above mocking himself and the stroke he had, underneath there’s a real honesty about the fear around that and facing morality. Gilbert is also doing something clever in talking about it on tour- in making others aware. And as much as the touching decision to not only have bucket collections for related charities, but to also donate some of the profits of the tour to charity, his talking about it is doing as much good for the cause also. And while it’s not to say comedy turns into a crusade, comedy is often a soapbox, and why not use that soapbox to raise some awareness, do some good, while also getting a bloody good laugh. And it’s subtle and brilliant- but actually Gilbert’s show will probably stick in the mind of those 5,000 people last night in terms of signs for stroke, more than any public service information. And that’s not to be discounted.
Talking about illness, and grief also compound the taboos around them. And none more so than infertility. The subject that takes up most of the second act, Gilbert describes his typically hapless attempts at fertility treatment. He says at the start it’s worse for his wife, medically and emotionally. But actually, what he does here is important- few people and few opportunities arise for men to talk about what trying for and failing to have a baby feels like. He says it outright- the feeling of not being able to give the person you love most in the world what they want- and that’s a side that isn’t talked about. We know men are a lot worse at talking about their emotions than women, and particularly for a subject that does in fairness affect a woman more directly, it’s still important with men in that situation to engage with what they feel. And while yes, there’s material for many a wanking joke (and who doesn’t love a wanking joke) and more detailed descriptions of semen than I frankly ever needed in my life, there’s a raw honesty underneath this section. From the yes, total embarrassment of having to discuss these aspects of life with Doctors to friends, but also the emotional fallout involved for men. And it’s important that both men and women talk more openly about yes infertility, but also childbearing in general.
Of course, as Gilbert rightly notes, it’s a tricky process and we should always bear in mind your kids might be twats. And that’s true, and this forms the periphery of the main story in ‘The Book of John’ there are as ever moments of Gilbert ranting and petty annoyances, and yes much mockery of the John in question. And we all know a John. And if you don’t, you are one.
Comedy is so much about observing the world around us but rarely does a comedian truly reflect on things that affect us deeply and personally like Gilbert does in this show. The thing I remember most about my own Father’s funeral is not the ‘Sadness’ or beige sandwiches (and begin forced to hang out in the local Conservative Club). It’s the hysterical, cry-laughing on the way to the wake. I cannot for the life of me remember what it was that made us laugh, but some idiot I’m related to say something, and we were gone. And so, Gilbert describing sitting in the back of that car, laughing at what John had said, on the way to his Mother’s funeral, hit home. Brilliantly perfectly in that description, he hits on what it is to be human and dealing with grief. You’re probably not supposed to admit to pissing yourself laughing or having a row over baked goods on the way to a parent’s funeral. But if that isn’t far more human than delicate weeping at a graveside. And it is beautifully poignant and sad at the same time. And I’m sure hit home with many of the audience.
Laughter is a primal response, much like anger and as a result, it sits very close together with grief- which is essentially what Gilbert’s show is about. Grief in the more straightforward sense that we understand it in terms of the loss of a loved one. But also the kind of grief that comes with a loved one’s illness, our own illness our bodies letting us down in any way. ‘You either laugh or you cry’ because those two emotions sit so closely. Sometimes we laugh because we can’t cry anymore. Sometimes we cry because we laugh too, because something hits so hilariously ridiculously close to our own experience that it is hilarious, but also touching. And that is a powerful thing.
And also, he\’s a bloody funny bloke that Rhod Gilbert. Don\’t let my serious introspection put you off. 
As a post-script, I wrote (and hit send minutes before leaving) and while I didn’t talk about my own social anxiety and shyness specifically there, I want to use this review to thank Rhod for talking about his own. He made a documentary last year (which you can see here) about the debilitating effects it can have. As someone who doesn’t mind talking in front of crowds, but would sometimes rather go hungry than ask a waiter for a fork, talking about that truly resonates. And as one of life’s ‘Twatty Little Weirdos’ (Rhod’s words not mine) hearing him talk about that makes me feel a bit less alone too.

By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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