Review by Thomas Gregory
The Tower room at Malthouse theatre might arguably be the best venue in Melbourne for comedy. There is something almost cold and sterile about seeing a comedian in a large theatre; by the time a joke made it to the back row, the people at the front have stopped laughing. On the other hand, those cozy performances in the back rooms of pubs are often marred by the sounds just outside the door, pub rock from nearly half a century ago, or the Friday night footy. The Tower is quiet and intimate, but with room to breathe.
Madeleine Stewart is nothing like, and exactly like, The Malthouse Tower. While no audience could mistake the comedian for being quiet, and you could easily lose your breath from laughing, her unique brand of comedy is personal, inviting, and hot.
“So Brave”, Stewart’s show for MICF 2022, is a mostly-uplifting look at what it means to have a disability, how important confidence is in dating, and how much better life can be with the support of loved ones. From the dating tips of an extremely ocker step-father to attempting to make a one-night-stand feel like an episode of Bridgerton, Madeline explores how difficult it can be to both have a disability and feel sexy.
Stewart refuses to allow the audience a moment to pity her and threatens comic violence against anyone who dares called her “inspiring”. She threatens violence upon any person who would call her “courageous” and instead invites reviewers to call her something my editor would never allow.
Throughout the set, Madeleine is open about how fortunate she has been. From the incredible relationship she has with her brother, to her eventual success in the world of online dating, the stories Stewart offer up are there to show what it means to be an ally of those with disability. She doesn’t want to be prayed for, she just wants to get laid.
Madeleine Stewart is the creator of Sydney’s first accessible comedy club, “Crips & Creeps”. A stand-up since the age of seventeen, she is an expert at telling stories we can relate to, subverting our expectations, and making us laugh. It’s no surprise then how polished the show is. A one-hour set moves at a brisk pace as we move from her childhood to adult dating struggles, her experience as a life model to meeting her partner’s extended family for the first time. There’s zero hesitation in delivery, and Stewart’s comic timing is brilliant.
There are few comedians who most personify the middle-class suburban Australian than Madeleine. Motifs of denim and tradies abound, and the misplaced caring of the religious could be recognised in many of our own family members. Madeleine isn’t some cliched urban elitist, or over-the-top rural hick, and doesn’t try to be anyone but herself. This is the honesty and humility Australian audiences crave, and it is clear why she will become the favourite of many festival-goers.
“So Brave” is a show that mostly traverses the lighter side of life, which sometimes puts itself in an awkward position. While the topic of ableism is a serious one, more jokes are made about her stepfather’s denim shorts than her mother’s close-mindedness. Stewart jokingly laments the cat-caller who stopped when seeing her partial limb, saying “don’t I have the right to be harassed like everyone else?” She wants to explicitly remind us of the horrifying statistics of sexual violence against those with a disability, but also laugh at a bad drawing made by an over-confident artist.
This could all work well but on some occasions, the jokes fail because they are a little difficult to relate to. It is difficult to empathise with a beautiful person when somebody fails to capture that beauty on paper. It is difficult to empathise with a person who “did not consent to prayer” when the show has so firmly placed itself in a sphere where consent is a far more serious a topic. Each joke works well on its own, without question. It is the context that sometimes makes it difficult.
Perhaps the reason this doesn’t work has less to do with the structure of the set, and more to do with the character we see on stage. “So Brave” is performed by a comedian for whom “brave” doesn’t fit as a description. The word “brave” suggests doing something you find difficult, or scary.
Madeleine Stewart does not make stand-up look scary. Madeleine Stewart, at least the one we experience on stage, is fearless. While we are educated on the vulnerabilities of those who have disabilities, we are being entertained by someone who shows no vulnerability. While the stories told are about someone finding their confidence, the person telling them looks like someone who has never had that problem.
While this is part of the thesis of the night - that you aren’t “brave” or “courageous” for living with a disability - it is muted slightly by not recognising just how much confidence anyone would need to do the things Madeline Stewart does.
“So Brave” is a show with very little bravery, and that is probably the point. Madelaine isn’t a disability advocate that happens to do comedy. Instead, she is one of the countries best comedians, who also advocates for those with disability. She is the funniest cunt you will see all festival (there, I did it, editors don’t hate me).