29 November 2017, Common Room, Hastings
It’s only been a couple of months since Jon Bennett’s hilarious Fringe in the ‘Stings offering Pretending Things are a Cock. In my household we’re still cracking cock jokes and sniggering at pink Havaiana jandals in shop windows, so I was quick to put my hand up to see more of Bennett’s storytelling comedy. This time he has a new story to share, as well as a support act, Rhian Wood-Hill.
Wood-Hill is fresh (that’s not a crack at his Samoan side, I promise), fresh-faced and fresh on the scene. He’s touring alongside Bennett, practising his craft and a new story, following the success of his show How I Met my Father. Wood-Hill’s story is based on his experiences as a professional poker player. He confidently interacts with the audience and enjoys his place on stage as storyteller. There are slides with photographic evidence of his antics, as well as graphs and maths equations to debunk common misconceptions. A Dungeons and Dragons reference proves to me that Wood-Hill’s set is essentially a good ol’ “geek-out”, and it’s adorable. A live, onstage poker game with an audience member felt difficult at times for me to follow – having only ever played as a kid, with match sticks and bubblegum as poker chips. Despite my struggling to follow the game, I was glad for the physical movement on stage and the change in intensity and focus that the poker game provided. I think that some practice and tuning of this aspect will smooth the performance out for Wood-Hill’s upcoming long-set shows. His chuckles and conversational ease with the audience were endearing. I was happy to be a willing participant and witness to him practising his craft. The audience was warmer than when we first arrived and I felt like I got good value, two storytelling comedians in one show!
In terms of Jon Bennett’s subject matter, you never know quite what you’ll get. His show title seems straightforward enough but, like a book title it says just enough… a hook to draw you in, perhaps to wonder how an entire show could possibly be crafted from a five-letter sentence and a single event. The purpose of the Fire in the Meth Lab story is rooted in Bennett’s desire to unpick and analyse his own knowing of his brother Tim, in order to understand Tim’s meth addiction and the entitled event for which he was jailed. What unfolds is an expertly woven story of siblinghood, family dynamic, and addiction featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks, Jason Donovan, Wonder Years, Christian youth camps and some riotous “trips”.
Bennett’s delivery is slick and well-practised but with enough space for acknowledgement and jocular interaction with the audience. He is a generous performer, not only for bringing his personal stories to the stage, but also because it is clear how much effort and thought he has applied to the story and the audience’s experience of it. Slides, voice-overs, props and his hilarious gesticulation kept us engaged and compelled to receive his narrative. Setting the story with a picture of his childhood, in a conservative, religious family in South Australia, Bennett delivers fast and with energy. Through a study of Tim’s various addictions, he heads us all upward into side-splitting climax. The gear then shifts, from stories of his brother’s bullying and generally atrocious behaviour to Bennett’s own inner conflict. Down we come, headlong into the falling action where we are suspended for a time by the ultimate event. Plaintive pauses have us at seat’s edge before he eases us back into laughter.
Bennett knows how to spin a yarn, sure, but he succeeds much more than this – conveying through his physical self the potential depth of the ludicrous but ordinary events of life. The resolution of his story is firm and almost philosophical, with an honest call to shift collective consciousness around addiction. His show is artfully designed as testament to the belief that addiction needs to be viewed as more health-related than crime-related. After all, it’s all about relations with Jon Bennett. This was time well spent.