Booze, bankruptcy, brain haemorrhage: the comics turning tragedy into laughs

I didn’t start drinking until I was 18,” says Matt Rees. “That’s quite a rarity for someone in the UK. But straight away, I recognised that I liked it – and I knew that one day I’d have to stop.”

Rees, who was born in Maesteg, south Wales, is making his debut at this year’s Edinburgh fringe with Happy Hour, a look back at his battle with alcohol. He started performing in 2010 and quickly scooped up some new act awards. Then, two years ago, his comedy career stalled as he experienced problems with addiction.

Being a standup, Rees “got away” with his drinking for longer than most. “It’s quite normal to go up on stage after a few pints, and it’s fine to be hungover the next day. Someone with a normal job would’ve been fired. But I was just getting on with it.” In 2016, after a visit to his GP, the damage became clear. “There’s an enzyme called GGT that shows how hard your liver’s working. It should be under 50 in a healthy adult. At that point, mine was over 1,700. My doctor said, ‘You’re going to kill yourself if you don’t stop drinking.’”

Happy Hour makes Rees part of a new wave of comedy at the fringe, as standups share stories of coming back from the brink. Last year’s Comedy Award was shared: Hannah Gadsby won for her passionate diatribe against homophobia and sexual violence, and John Robins for his raw account of his reaction to a breakup. This year, to name just a few, Dave Maher describes surviving a coma, Louise Reay explores free speech after being sued by her ex-husband, Jim Tavaré relives his near-fatal car crash, and Lou Sanders tackles addiction.

Which brings us back to Rees who, on Good Friday last year, stopped drinking completely. “I was physically dependent by that point,” he says. “The shops weren’t open and I wasn’t so much craving a drink as physically needing one. My only option was to go to hospital for Valium. I went to my first meeting on Easter Monday and it’s been abstinence from then on.”

On Easter Sunday – two days after checking himself into hospital – Rees went on stage and talked about his addiction, and the material has now been bolstered into an hour-long show. Although standup, which mostly exists in pubs and clubs, is a boozy environment, the 28-year-old says the support of the comedy community has been a huge help with his recovery.

“There are a lot of comedians who are ex-drinkers, so I had no shortage of people to ring when it was getting too much. You could argue that it’s a risky environment, but when I did my first gig two days after hospital, it helped – it gave me a boost. I like comedy clubs. If I’m giving up booze, I’m not giving up comedy as well.”

Beth Vyse: A breast cancer appointment is like Deal or No Deal

Beth Vyse is another comic who has turned life-threatening experiences into comedy. As Funny As Cancer, her acclaimed absurdist show from 2015, tackled her battle with breast cancer via dreamlike bus rides with Michael Jackson and a pile of ping-pong balls. Her latest show, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which finds her in character as desperate daytime TV host Olive Hands, deals with no such hardship. But it does come to the fringe a year later than planned.

“Last year,” says Vyse, “when I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, my partner started feeling dizzy. After finally going to hospital, they found a cavernoma in his brain. They’re basically abnormal cells and they’d haemorrhaged, so there was blood in his brain.”

Luke Chaproniere, her partner, was told surgery wasn’t possible. The only option was to wait for the blood to be absorbed back into the brain. After three months, he had recovered – by which time Vyse had given birth to their son, Henry. They decided to take a show to Edinburgh but, with a month to go, Chaproniere’s symptoms returned and they were forced to cancel.

“It would’ve been silly to do it,” says Vyse. “Especially with the new baby. I could’ve gone up on my own, but I wanted to be with Luke. I couldn’t have done this show with anyone else.” Indeed, Chaproniere isn’t just Vyse’s partner, he’s her comedy team-mate. He advises on scripts, directs her shows and operates all the technical aspects. The second wave of symptoms turned out to be a scare – not another bleed, but the old blood becoming dislodged. Within a couple of months, Chaproniere was feeling better. The show was back on for 2018.

But a major aspect of it has changed. In The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Vyse explores juggling her career and motherhood through madcap games and set pieces, but it features a starring role for young Henry. “Not to be rude,” she says, “but last year Henry would’ve just been a cute, breathing prop. He was only three months old. Now he’s a bit older, he reacts to things. I’ll use his responses as part of the show. Whether Olive Hands takes them on board or just ignores them, I’m not sure.”

Hannah Gadsby shared the Edinburgh Comedy Award at last year’s festival.

Hannah Gadsby shared the Edinburgh Comedy Award at last year’s festival. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

The comedian Adam Hess has no such dependents – and that became a factor in the experiences he has turned into his show Seahorse. “What happened to me,” he says, “made me realise, in both the saddest and happiest way, that I don’t have any heirs. I’ve got nothing.”

Last year, the 29-year-old hit rock bottom, after losing all his savings when a tech investment crashed. Hess has always been fascinated with technology and, after reading about the rise of Bitcoin, invested £200 in the cryptocurrency. A few hours later, his portfolio was worth a whole 50p more. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, just a few hours and 50p return – great!” So he kept investing and soon most of his savings were tied up in the digital currency.

For a while, all was good. The value steadily increased – but then it started to plummet. “I failed to realise that all of the articles I was reading were written either by someone with an incentive to make me buy more, or by people as deluded as me. I mainly wanted to pay off my university debt so I could say, ‘Now I can be a proper grown-up.’”

Instead, Hess found himself revisiting his childhood: having lost his shirt, he was forced to move back in with his parents – and that was the inspiration for Seahorse. “The fact that I’m 29 and the parent-child dynamic still exists is so funny,” he says. “Like, I’m given less dinner than my dad – and fair enough, he’s in charge of me. But I’m bigger than him.”

Cohabiting with his folks isn’t the main focus of Hess’s show, though. After moving back home, he went through old photos and childhood possessions that brought back memories of his school days. “The show’s about sexuality and kind of about me thinking I was gay. I preferred wearing dresses, I fancied a couple of boys, and I loved everything that was ‘fabulous’. And then I was told it was wrong, so I just had to repress it. At the time, I thought it was being gay, but maybe I was just woke as fuck!”

Hess insists he has “nothing new to bring to the table” in terms of opinions: the show is simply his personal stories. But being at home has made him feel more comfortable talking about his experiences. “I feel safer there,” he says. “I’m constantly surrounded by people I love. It’s been a silver lining that funny stuff has come out of me losing a bit of money.”

But, as any comedian will tell you, taking a show to Edinburgh is expensive. Most comics don’t break even over the month-long festival. So after his financial disaster, how is Hess justifying spending cash on this year’s fringe? “It’s so funny,” he says. “In order to do this show about losing money, I’m having to lose more money. But no matter what, I will probably go to Edinburgh every year till I’m dead.”

Matt Rees and Adam Hess are at Pleasance Courtyard. Beth Vyse is at Monkey Barrel Comedy Club.


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