Unashamed defiance, rebellion and rudeness is the streak running through this young English comedian’s stand-up show.
Sophie Willan bounded onto the stage, gleefully shaking her boobs. She recalled being told – by a man – that this move sets women’s comedy back 20 years, but she doesn’t give a fuck. Unashamed defiance, rebellion and rudeness is the streak running through this young English comedian’s stand-up show. Words that, she revealed at the outset, appear again and again in her social services' records.
Yes, she has been in foster care in the past. Her mother is a heroin addict. Her father scarpered when she was a young child, and her step-father is schizophrenic. Generations of her family have lived on the same northern English council estate. In the final chapter of her show, Willan revealed the most controversial aspect of herself: before turning to comedy, she was a sex-worker.
This is very dark material for a comedy show. Certainly Branded is never laugh-til-you-cry kind of stuff, and the final minutes were actually quite serious. It’s bold, complex comedy, that makes demands on the audience. There’s some (not too demanding) audience participation, from the slightly late guy forced to do some boob-shaking in his seat, to quick little chats with others, as Willan sought out her fellow rebels.
There’s also lots of intelligent picking apart of the labels she’s branded with, which sets one thinking about how they are applied from a middle-class perspective. Willan reveals, for example, that she was derided for being a sex-worker by a woman whose feminist views were formed from a position of privilege and possibility.
Smothering this serious business with a mix of chatty charm and wry observations, Willan described a life that’s the opposite of privileged, in which possibility is fraught: the fleeting hope she and so many others felt when Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power, for example, and the economic freedom she later experienced as a sex-worker.
Probably as she has done in life, Willan gets through it by having a laugh. Among the funniest aspects of Branded are the stories about her family, complete with heavy Lancashire accent. It’s the stuff of British sitcoms about the working class, but the bleak reality behind her anecdotes never lets the audience relax.
So if you’re looking for laugh-out-loud comedy that leaves you smiling rather than thinking and questioning, Sophie Willan’s Branded is not for you. Some of the subtleties of British attitudes about class probably have less impact on Australian audiences than they do in her homeland, but with a wink and a laugh, she easily carries the audience along on a bumpy ride through her life.
Sophie Willan – Branded
Melbourne Town Hall, Cloak Room
Until 22 April
Melbourne International Comedy Festival
28 March - 22 April 2018
First published on
What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level