4/5 Stars

★★★★★Bear Necessities

Simon Ward reviews Average Bear at the Soho Theatre

Michelle Brasier’s Average Bear is billed as comedy, and it is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it is also thought-provoking and devastatingly emotional. Delivered as a mixture of stand-up, songs and ‘bear-lesque’, the audience never quite knows where Brasier’s irresistible banter will take us next.

Beginning in role as the titular bear, Average, Brasier explains that this is a pre-hibernation drinks party, which she has organised, only to be deserted by her mean friends on the phone. She then introduces the ‘human lady’ who will be providing entertainment at the party, ie Brasier. Average the bear is quiet and shy – Brasier is not. She is loud, funny and very Australian. She lets us in on stories about growing up in the middle of nowhere in Australia, but this is not, as she points out, a normal stand-up routine. It is actually a highly crafted piece of work, where the very ordinariness of her background and upbringing make the contrast with the tragedies that unfold all the greater. And yet she insists on the right to sing and joke and laugh in the face of it all.

It might seem outlandish and grotesque to build a comedy show around two untimely deaths, and indeed the uncertain future of the lead performer. But Brasier’s intent is to challenge those attitudes – no-one actually knows what is around the corner or how long we have to enjoy the world. And if it helps to sing and make jokes, then why not? But she does not deny the sadness of it all either – I defy anyone not to be moved as she describes how first her father and then her brother are taken away from her. And she is also sharp on the consequences for herself – she is overwhelmingly likely to face similar problems as well, and indeed the medics insist that she takes action. She needs to be vigilant to spot symptoms. But not too anxious as that can cause symptoms, and so on, in a dreadful vicious cycle. Faced with such a grim prognosis, why not crack a few jokes and sing? Which she does to great effect, managing the tonal shifts from uproarious comedy to heart-breaking tragedy with masterful skill.

The bear device is, in truth, little used. It is funny that the only effect she uses to create the bear is a pair of toy ears. She intersperses the show with bear facts, eg they don’t were clothes, hence the ‘bearlesque’, or they don’t have thumbs, thus making it difficult to hitch-hike. There are hints that, in earlier iterations of the show, the bear story may have been more prominent, but here it pops up just once or twice. Yet the bear image is important to Braiser, as she ends by urging us to tend to our own little bears – whether that be an inner child, the selves we are afraid to show the world, or unspoken fears which may be less frightening when exposed to the light. The idea of the bear hibernating in the hope of spring also reminds us that our time is short and one day spring will arrive without us.

It is rare for any show, least of a comedy, to be so challenging and rewarding. It is rare to have a performer of such warmth and empathy. It is as if she wanted to reach out and hug everyone in the audience, and I think, in a way, she did.

Average Bear is running at the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE until Saturday 11th March

Categories: 4/5 Stars, review

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