Billed as a work in progress from a comedian whose unique neurology makes it impossible for her to stay on script, Jess Thom gave her first solo stand-up comedy gig at the Southbank Centre on 6 September as part of Unlimited Festival.
Jess Thom has become a bit of an overnight legend since she took Unlimited 2014 by storm with her show Backstage in Biscuitland. She holds the stage with a natural charm that balances her tic-based, absurdist inventions from an original, creative mind with a sensitivity and engagement with her audience. She has an incredible vocabulary and she’s not afraid to use it.
Sit Down, Stand Up, Roll Over began with Jess explaining that a lot of what she will say will be a surprise not only to the audience, but to herself. By way of introduction she makes an attempt to describe herself:
I’m an ambassador for sheep with an interest in your mother’s sock draw.
I’m a large chimney stack in a shallow grave in a forest.
At turns outrageous, witty, poetic, bizarre and just plain off the wall, Jess is able to conjure a range of images that could easily keep several colonies of surrealist painters in a job over many lifetimes.
Although Backstage in Biscuitland was theatre rather than stand-up, Jess is clearly at home on stage presenting her inimitable style of performance, which lends itself to comedy. Sit Down, Stand Up, Roll Over offers a clever balance between presenting herself and her politics, telling her story and just being brilliantly entertaining. Drawing from aspects of Biscuitland, Jess talks about inclusiveness; about how the acceptance of difference makes for a more creative and fuller connection with the world.
The premise of the show is founded around Jess having agreed to do the stand-up night at the Southbank Centre partly out of anger at her experience at a comedy festival in Wales. Three comedians out of five chose to objectify her in one way, shape or form over the course of a night, in front of a packed audience. Eventually she felt she had no choice but to leave.
It left Jess with a bad taste in her mouth as someone who loves comedy and is fighting to make it a more accessible artform. It made her question why she should have to ask to not be called upon to be the butt of the joke that led to her writing a blog about the experience and entering into a conversation with some of the comedians.
They needed to control the room, they said. And fronting a knowledge of Tourette’s Syndrome and of Jess personally was the way they felt they could maintain their authority. But it was disingenuous, patronising and insulting. Their comedy wasn’t enhanced by mocking Tourette’s and playing to all the stereotypes about the condition.
The first time Jess came under public scrutiny, she tells us, was in a review, some seven years ago, as an audience member. The comedian she went to see wrote a piece about her in Time Out. “Isn’t it the performer who is meant to be written about in the press?” she asks the audience. She warns us that maybe we’ll end up being reviewed by her.
I find it hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t ‘get’ what Jess does and enjoy it. Well, a geranium perhaps? Jess chose a seat in the front row to, well, plant a plant − a large pot with geranium, which was subsequently the butt of her stand-up object of derision within the audience routine.
It’s one of those classic things that comedians do − raise laughter by choosing an audience member to objectify. Generally, the technique is cringe-worthy but using a geranium was genius.
Jess is superb at playing with the BSL Interpreter and making their presence and skill a central part of the act. She proved this with Biscuitland and during Sit Down Stand Up and Roll Over she had great improvisational fun with the very obliging Martin.
It would need the right BSL interpreter to be able to respond to Jess’s razor-fast timing and Martin was more than up for the job. However, for even the best of actors it would be hard to fake the redness that came to his cheeks from genuine embarrassment.
The number of times Martin got asked to sign private parts of the anatomy took the audience into fits of hysterical laughter. Amongst other things, we learnt how to fuck a toaster − and the consequences of fucking a toaster − all in crisp, clear sign language. I wonder if it’s an English thing – that we’ll so readily laugh at the mention of the bits we cover up.
Jess Thom proved she is on a roll with Sit Down, Stand Up, Roll Over. I can’t wait to see what she does next. It’s bound to be original and fun.