There was a moment during last year’s Fringe when Chloe Petts second guessed herself. Early in the run of her debut Transcience, which sought to challenge rising transphobia from her perspective as an often-misgendered lesbian, she walked on stage to find herself face-to-face with a front row full of “burly Scotsmen”. Would her jokes about gender, sexuality and the complex dynamics of women’s toilets land?
“I remember really distinctly looking out at those guys and sort of profiling them, wondering if I needed to make my message more accessible or soften it a bit,” she recalls. “Then I thought, no: this is what you believe, go out and do the show and trust that these are good people and they can handle it.”
They did indeed handle it, as did packed-out audiences throughout the month and critics who christened Petts a rising star and one to watch. It was a good lesson in not compromising, Petts says. And it’s one she has carried through to her upcoming show, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, which she describes as “the angry show after last year’s polite show.”
“I travelled up and down the country last year doing this show trying to tell people not to be transphobic and, if anything, it’s got even worse,” she explains. “So this show is like: you haven’t listened so I’m not going to be nice anymore. No more mister nice guy!”
Billed as “a newer, ruder approach to the big issues,” this year’s show explores Petts’ “journey with anger” and promises jokes on weddings, football fans, and people who play music too loudly on the bus. But it’s also an examination of empathy: “I’m trying to think about how we see anger societally and how useful it is; how useful it is to be angry and how useful it was to be polite,” she says.
“The whole ‘be kind’ movement makes me feel a bit like: well, sometimes you can’t just be kind, sometimes you have to fight back. So I guess it’s saying, be kind if you can but what about if you can’t?”
And if rudeness and anger have an important societal role, says Petts, they also, crucially, have a comedic one.
“There’s a misconception that talking about things like gender and sexuality means being a leftie liberal snowflake,” she says. “I think people enjoy rude humour that’s a bit on the edge, that’s not something that’s exclusive to the right.
“I enjoyed those bits in the last show so much, which is why I want to do this show where I really lean into how far I can push it.”
Petts waited two years to debut her solo hour thanks to the pandemic, but was rewarded with sell-out crowds, glowing reviews, and a Breakthrough Act nomination at the Chortle Awards. What is it like to try and follow that reception?
“It currently feels kind of like I’m in the midst of GSCEs; I’m having all these stress dreams and it’s all I can think about,” she jokes. “I guess the difference is that it’s like doing an exam but then someone watches you do the exam and reviews you in a national broadsheet.”
But she looks, as she does often, to her favourite hobby for perspective. “I try to remember that footballers want to play in the biggest games possible and that’s the reward for the hard work; we do it for the big moments,” she says.
“So I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little stressed, a little nervous – but I think I’ve worked hard enough to give myself the best chance of having a really fun year.”