Review by Flora Norton
‘Arj Barker Comes Clean’ at the Athenaeum Theatre is a deeply personal yet satirical commentary of the events of the past year. Peppered with anecdotes about his divorce, crude observations about Australian culture, and ridiculous lamentations about the trials of lockdown, Barker’s set is relatable and certainly a breath of fresh air after the train wreck that was 2020.
Barker has been gracing the Melbourne Comedy Festival with his presence for over two decades and despite being born and bred in California, has clearly been adopted by this country as one of our own. As I sit down in the back row of the venue, I notice the audience seems somewhat older than the usual crowd, testament to the circle of long-standing fans he has accumulated over the years. Sure enough, his delivery is warm and familiar and his show this year feels as much like a conversation with old friends as it does a preconceived comedy show.
Barker has the audience engaged from the beginning, effortlessly dictating our emotions as he spins the heartbreaking revelation of his recent divorce into the punchline of joke about love in lockdown. Barker stands out from the typical self-deprecating comedic style we are used to with a sort of endearing arrogance, which he uses seamlessly to self-promote his merchandise throughout the show.
Despite the personal anecdotes, Barker does not shy away from teasing the audience about our own hypocrisies and flaws, shamelessly mocking Australian culture and the bizarre way we have dealt with the global pandemic. Melbourne’s toilet paper debacle, Queensland’s racism and South Australia’s backwardness are not free from scrutiny and ridicule in Barker’s 60-minute skit and while the reflection on the breakdown of his marriage may appeal more to the older crowd, he does not forget his younger patrons. A very theatrical explanation of the shortcomings of Australian lavatory design, complete with a re-enactment of his own experience, brings down the house and certainly the tone of the show.
Perhaps the most memorable joke in the show was in fact provided by an audience member with a comment that seemed almost too bizarre not to be staged. Barker awkwardly accepts the R-rated heckle and, to the discomfort of some and the pleasure of others, proceeds to explain in the form of metaphor, the meaning behind the crude term that is hurled so spontaneously at him from the back of the crowd.
‘Arj Barker Comes Clean’ is a show which certainly strays away from the more political, pessimistic, and self-deprecating tropes adopted by many of the British influenced comedians at this year’s festival, instead adopting the cruder and ‘blokey’ humour of our friends across the Pacific. A great show for those who have been following Barker since his inception, or for those simply craving a light-hearted distraction.