For clarification, where ‘Ashdown’ is mentioned in this review, this refers to the comedian herself, Hatty Ashdown; where ‘Hatty’ is mentioned in this review, this refers to Ashdown’s onstage persona.
Unfortunately, I must start by clarifying that, whilst I did happen to notice on the guest list that a great deal more audience members were scheduled to turn up, only two others and myself were present. But Ashdown certainly turned this negative into a positive, nonetheless. Her energy was constant and astounding; her stage presence, strong and palpable. A veritably natural and powerful performer. Such a small audience is never easy to perform to, especially that of a standup comedy show, whose meek reticence is mistakable for disengagement or displeasure, yet Ashdown carried herself with confidence and self-assuredness, which would naturally incite any audience to feel secure in watching her that they were watching a true, committed professional.
However, as I made clear in my recent review of another Clapham Fringe comedy show, Transience, scripts on stage elicit a huge “NO!” from me. Whether a work in progress or not, a performer must be confident in and aware of the entirety of their material before they present it to an audience — particularly a paying one. Scripts are distracting, disruptive and cause for a sense of amateurism and lack of preparation and credibility. Although, I must admit that I did personally find Ashdown’s particular interactions with her script very humorous. But from a purely critical and professional standpoint, this is a huge negative. I would recommend Ashdown memorise her material, incomplete or not, for future performances going forward.
Now, my notes on the direction of this work in progress. Ashdown’s persona is campy, sometimes naughty, cheeky and, above all, dramatic and theatrical. She is inviting, bubbly, vivacious, and her material, dealing with the common everyday struggles, the banal and humdrum, amplifies her relatability. But I cannot help but want a tad more…extremity. Every so often, I find a comedian that would benefit from a more ‘traditional’ theatrical approach, i.e. from an incorporation of character into their work. Ashdown is such a comedian. By far the most effective, resonant and comedic material that Ashdown presents us with is that which relies heavily upon her impressions — those of her mother, for example — or upon her campy, low-voiced outbursts when she is delivering her cheeky/witty asides. These impressions are very convincing and effective, the kind which we can immediately identify and relate to, and these caricatural outbursts give us our sense of Hatty’s identity. The profiles she presents us with are funny, clear, strong, and I believe this is something Ashdown needs to pursue further in her comedic works. I would not go so far as to demand one big and comedic character-driven soliloquy from Ashdown — though I am certain she could, indeed, provide this — but to generate a lot more material that lends solely to these characterisations and caricatures is something I believe would be very beneficial to Ashdown, in this work at least.
I can see that storytelling and recounting memories is a great part of Ashdown’s work, but I do believe this selling point is also a downfall to some degree. This comedic technique is perhaps overused in Dig Deep, and this is also why an incorporation of character-based material would be beneficial, I believe, to break up the almost sameness of Ashdown telling us the funny experiences she remembers. Seeing a lot more variation in her storytelling and in her voice would be productive, and impressions seem to come naturally to Ashdown and would be a great means of ‘spicing up’ her recounts, so to speak.
Next, theme. Throughout Dig Deep, in its current form, we consistently find references to womanhood and women’s issues but, most chiefly, to motherhood. Hatty relates or compares herself to strong and independent female role models throughout but mostly recounts her experiences with and memories of her late mother. She also details her relationship with her own children and the stories they share. With all of this in mind, the themes of motherhood and maternality seem persistent, despite Hatty’s focus on worrying and stoic approaches to anxiety and fear that seem to do nothing for her until the very end with her heartening return to the topic of her mother’s “worry drawer”. I would recommend making the theme of motherhood and maternality the principle and overarching focus, instead, as this rings truer to the show’s current content. Worry and approaches to worrying will naturally return with her mother’s worry drawer, if this is material Ashdown would still find fitting and would not want to lose.
A show that details her memories of and experiences with her mother, what lessons she has learnt from her, which of her traits Hatty has herself, all of which then reflected upon Hatty’s relationship with her own son and their personal stories and the relationships she has with other mothers…this would all make for a very coherent and cohesive narrative. It would not be too far away from the content Ashdown already has, as well. Presenting her impressions of her mother, other mothers she has met along the way and her children would also benefit this material well, I believe. Otherwise, I do not think there is a clear sense of theme and narrative at all currently, with the concept of ‘digging deep’ feeling vastly underplayed and the theme of dealing with worry being somewhat insignificant, overall.
A few final notes on Ashdown’s performance. Pacing! Particularly after these aforementioned campy asides, Ashdown often races through the text, and this is often to the detriment of comedic timing. I would advise she consider areas where slight pauses are needed and techniques on calming any extraneous performance nerves. Finally, do not conclude with a “So, that’s it, really…” This completely discredits all of the work you have done thus far as insignificant, fruitless and negligible.
And some final, perhaps show-specific, notes to conclude…the lighting design for this performance, as balanced and aesthetically pleasing as it was, was shockingly poor in considering the proximity of the lights to the stage. I can imagine it was all but blinding when Ashdown stepped Downstage, especially when she neared the stage’s edge. Finally, I understand the reason behind having the tech operator, “Helen”, laugh loudly at every opportunity — to make up for the absence of guffawing audience members — but, whilst I cannot be sure if this was her own personal decision or if it was recommended by Ashdown herself, I must state emphatically that doing this makes for a hugely awkward display. I would recommend the tech operator not do this again for future performances. All it does is draw attention to the absence of laughter, especially when it is done before the punchline is even delivered or when it is done so performatively…either that, or it forces the audience to be aware of their duty to laugh as attendees at a comedy show, and duty and responsibility are not particularly comical. A simple giggle at major punchlines only would have sufficed here. But again, I understand the admirable intentions.