The Evolution of Richard Gadd

Richard Gadd has traded comedy for theatre at this year’s Festival – but, as he tells Eve Livingston, the real change might be something more profound

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
32686 large
Richard Gadd
Photo by Andrew Perry
Published 14 Aug 2019

On the internet there is a clip of Richard Gadd from 2016, fighting back tears as he accepts the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award for Monkey See, Monkey Do, his much-lauded exploration of his own experience of sexual assault at the hands of an industry professional. “I don’t know where to begin,” he tells the crowd. “The darkness I was in… I cannot tell you how bad it got.” 

Three years on, as audiences sit in Summerhall’s Roundabout for Gadd’s Fringe return—and his debut in the theatre section—the clip is projected onto the venue’s ceiling. Now he is telling us something of another darkness, and exactly how bad it got. Away from the comedy gigs and Twitter humour, and in the shadow of the assault which haunted him for years, Gadd began to be stalked. A middle-aged woman gifted a free cup of tea by then-barman Gadd, “Martha” went on to follow him, track down his parents and home, bombard him with calls and emails, and give him the eponymous nickname Baby Reindeer.

“The main reason I did this show is that the police have come out themselves and said their attitude to stalking and harassment is flawed, and it is,” says Gadd. “I think there’s a public duty to let people know just how bad this can be, and just how little help there is.” He recounts trying to forward a voicemail message to the police and finding that their inbox wasn’t big enough to hold it. On another occasion, he says, he presented an SD card of evidence only to be told that they didn’t know how to access its information. 

This is a noble aim, and it's one which is achieved powerfully in Baby Reindeer as a tense and frustrated Gadd paces the stage, recounting gobsmacking encounters with police and pleading desperately for their help and understanding. But if the production has wider societal ambition, it’s also deeply personal, with Gadd baring his soul and trauma with unflinching intensity.

“It is super close,” he agrees. “There are still parts of the show I’m embarrassed about — I can feel the scenes coming up and I feel awkward and uneasy. But every time you make a piece of art about something you’re struggling with, you learn to understand it more. It dwarfs the magnitude a bit.”

“It was the same with Monkey See, Monkey Do,” he continues. “It was hard doing that show. But I think that within fear there’s freedom. With these two shows I’ve been facing some pretty big fears in my life, and I think I’ve found the freedom in that.”

Monkey See, Monkey Do was performed entirely on a treadmill, in a feat of impressive physical endurance. Baby Reindeer uses no such gimmicks, but insofar as Gadd relentlessly interrogates his own actions and complicity, complicating what could otherwise have been a straightforward victim narrative, it also feels like its own exercise in a different type of endurance. 

“I had a lot of guilt about the situation,” he reflects. “and I’m trying to get better about admitting when I’m wrong. My twenties have just been so difficult, and I think it helps to put it on stage, to write about it”. 

Now 29, Gadd’s move from comedy to theatre perhaps isn’t as large a jump as it looks on paper. The bigger switch happened three years ago when Monkey See, Monkey Do debuted as a more theatrical offering exploring personal experiences. It was a departure from what he describes as his previous “anarchic” comedy: “very repressed shows with a loud, in your face, high stakes sort of man”. 

The shift reflects what Gadd characterises as “learning the hard way” in the aftermath of his assault, growing from someone who took great pride in traditional masculinity to understanding true strength as “a real, empathetic man who’s vulnerable and in touch with his emotions”.

Gadd feels many things about this evolution into theatre—“nervous”, “excited”, “grateful”—but does he feel brave? He pauses. “It feels brave to me because I’m fundamentally terrified every time I do it. I’m saying things that I’ve kept repressed for so long, and things that I’ve been ashamed of.” He continues: “But I’m fully aware there are people in this world doing much greater things, so I don’t put myself on a pedestal.”

In an ideal world, he says, he would take the production out to new audiences in venues where its subject matter might be even more challenging. He becomes visibly emotional as he recalls “one of the most inspiring people in [his] life”, the late performance artist Adrian Howells who taught Gadd as a theatre student. 

“He would go to these countries where homosexuality is banned, and set up shop in a basement somewhere in the middle of nowhere, all on his own, to meet gay men and do these intimacy workshops with them,” he explains. In one-to-one sessions, Howells would encourage participants to wrestle with humanity’s innate discomfort around vulnerability and closeness. “And he would do this in countries where he could have been killed. He was just so fearless. That’s bravery.”