Andrew Bailey, of Victoria’s Atomic Vaudeville, comes to the Toronto Fringe riding his own personal cyclone – the solo show. The show is sold based on Bailey’s incredible problem-solving skills: that is, he solves the meaning of life in the first minute and then spends the rest trying to un-solve that. Bailey delivers on his promise, and his premise for life’s meaning seems sound. I don’t really want to spoil it for you, even if it’s revealed within a minute. The rest of the show is how Bailey came to that initial conclusion, and how he suffers to find it.
When a show’s description invokes a near-death experience, most people think of a car accident, or a heart attack. Few expect to hear the line, “The first time I was possessed…” Bailey’s touching and disturbing story involves mental illness from childhood, an incapacity to remove “bad” thoughts and a tendency to self-blame to the point of obsession. Then there’s the possession thing. The show is full of the unexpected, leading to a narrative that is at times fascinating. It relies on stories from youth that are alternately hysterical and sad, and its strength is the ability to be relatable to an audience that has varying degrees of experience with mental illness, particularly a pathology that is a little more unusual than, say, depression. Its other strength is visceral imagery that really helps us enter his world, which is extremely helpful in a bare-bones solo experience.
Bailey’s story is not perfect; some jokes don’t land, some stories seem a bit too digressive or uncomfortable, and his voice and delivery take a little getting used to. He manages to balance humour and cringe-worthy personal confession, but this isn’t a show for those afraid of soul-baring. It’s very honest and there’s a real interest in audience connection. Not to say audience participation, but it’s very hard to hide emotionally from what he has to say. Of course, if you’re trying to hide emotionally, then what are you doing in the theatre?