The Cork comedian 'has the razzle-dazzle of an alchemist', but lacks preparation where it matters
Cats and dogs. Not going to the gym. Eating cakes. Sibling rivalry. Michael Fassbender’s gorgeousness. If you were going to parody the notional content of a female comedian’s act, you couldn’t really come up with a more apt list of topics than Maeve Higgins’.
It might read like the minutes of a Loose Women production meeting, but this set at the Black Box in Belfast is not the cynical, pedantic, deconstructionist comedy that I normally enjoy. So, why do I like it so much?
The obvious answer has to be Higgins herself. I have never subscribed to the notion that woman aren’t funny. If it’s palpably untrue in life, then why would a woman’s sense of humour wither on the tongue as soon as she gets a whiff of greasepaint?
Such misconceptions smack of delightful, old fashioned sexism. The type cultivated by the snorting, macho male comedians that litter the circuit. 'Women aren’t funny', is the general rule. 'Women can’t tell jokes.'
But Higgins can tell jokes. They are funny. She does other things too: word-play, mucking about, puns and stream-of-consciousness rambling. And she gives good charm. When asking the audience questions, the woman behind me, drinking a single glass of white wine on her lunch-break, answers conversationally, as though chatting to a friend.
Routines about cats following her about like work experience students and the 'polite zone of the sinks' in women’s toilets are peppered with great lines, despite, or more properly, because of the mundanity of the subject matter.
A long routine about the various members of her family repeatedly thwarting her attempts to meet and marry Michael Fassbender is a lot funnier than it sounds. Higgins has the razzle-dazzle of an alchemist – she spins base material into golden yarns.
Towards the end of her set she talks about jobs that she could never do. Prostitution is the main one. After seeing the 'documentary' Pretty Woman, she realised she is not good enough with money and far too polite. 'I’d always being saying “Put your money away. This one’s on me, you’ll get the next one!”' This passes for 'edgy' in Higgins' cosy set.
The performance is part ordinary stand-up, part her reading from 'essays'. And, oddly, these essays showcase a different and more interesting side to the Cork comedian's talent. They are not dithering, whimsical monologues, bolstered by charm, but joke intensive, ideologically sustained pieces of writing.
Here, it feels as though her real comic voice comes through, denuded of the trappings of her onstage persona, and it has a 'look at what you could have won' quality to it. Higgins has had to work harder on the page because she can’t just wing it.
The combination of her stagecraft and these ambitious monologues both anticipate a new direction and rather derail the first part of the show, as Higgins' lack of preparation becomes manifest. Advertising one lengthy off-mic fumble as 'the lull I planned for the middle of the show' is a nice line, but it’s not really good enough. Neither is admitting that she hasn’t done stand-up for a while.
So you’ve been writing – show us! 'I work as a comedian. I should have said that at the start,' she quips after another lengthy rummage through her paperwork. There is too much flapping about and too much reliance on the good will of the audience.
Higgins is a talented performer with a unique authorial voice and the ability to make a sober lunchtime crowd like her very much indeed. I just hope she tries a little bit harder next time.