Writer an performer: Richard Gadd
Director: Jon Brittain
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
As an Edinburgh Comedy Award winner and an accomplished actor, Richard Gadd has been acquiring a degree of celebrity status that could draw unwanted attention from over-enthusiastic fans. However, the terrifying and apparently true story that he has to tell, one of obsession and transgression, has nothing to do with celebrity. It could happen to any of us.
An hour-long monologue, Baby Reindeer made grown-up waves at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It transfers to the Bush with 15 minutes added, done without making the story feel stretched. Gadd tells us of his chance meeting with a lady named Martha. In 2013, he is working in London as a barman and he performs a simple act of kindness towards her. He is in his early 20’s, she is 45, rotund, usually wearing pink or purple clothes a few sizes too small for her and displaying a “fierce” sweat on her forehead.
The encounter sparks a chain of events that amount to stalking, trolling and other forms of pestering of increasing severity over a period of years. Messages by text and voicemail range from needy adulation to explicit menace. Martha obtains Gadd’s home and e-mail addresses, his mobile phone number and she even contacts his family. She turns up at his comedy gigs all over the country and taunts him with a bad review (not from this site) of his show. She hangs out at the bar throughout his shifts, waits around on the street where he lives and gives him the nickname “Baby Reindeer”. Santa would not approve.
Director Jon Brittain ratchets up the tension with a non-stop high energy production and the theatre, set up in the round, is turned into a pressure cooker. Gadd perhaps walks a couple of miles or more during the performance, pacing agitatedly around the stage, speaking loudly in tormented tones. Lighting effects (designer Peter Small) add shock and suspense, four screens display text messages and e-mails and the disembodied voice of Martha on voicemail sends shivers down the spine.
Throughout, the authorities seem powerless either to offer support for the victim or provide help to address the mental health issues of the perpetrator. When Gadd Googles Martha, he finds that she has a string of previous offences, but the Police dismiss his concerns, their reaction amounting to a form of gender bias. Their assumption is that male on female stalking is more serious than the reverse because of a man’s physical strength. Perhaps none of them had seen Fatal Attraction.
Gadd’s play is raised high above the level of a routine thriller by the writer/performer’s candid self-analysis. As each calculated move that he makes misfires badly, his confidence ebbs away and he questions his judgement in all areas of his life. He had been psychologically damaged by sexual abuse earlier in life and he looks back at this as he questions his motivation at every turn. He also analyses his relationship with Teri, his transgender girlfriend, a relationship which cannot escape the attentions of Martha.
Gadd brings out emotions of frustration, pity, fear and despair and transmits them to the audience.. Long before the end, we start looking around, wondering if the lady sitting just along the row could possibly be Martha. And then we tremble.
Runs until 9 November 2019 | Image: Contributed