Sarah Kendall: One-Seventeen

In 1986, the Kendall family stood in their back-garden, staring at the Australian sky and hoping to catch a glimpse of Halley’s comet. This blink-and-you-miss-it encounter with a celestial body sets the tone for a gorgeous and heart-breaking hour of storytelling – a meditation on life, loss, and luck, with an emotional scope seldom seen in standup.

The power of Kendall’s storytelling is indisputable

Kendall opens by explaining that, like so many people, she sees her own personality as a mix of her parents’. Her mother is an eternal pessimist with an imagination unparalleled in its ability to cook up horrendous scenarios from the most basic of ingredients. Her father, on the other hand, is more zen – a stargazer whose life philosophy is centred on an ancient Eastern parable about the indeterminate nature of luck. The family dynamic is all very relatable as the gags ease us into the first story, telling of how her father planned for the family to witness the once-in-a-generation meteoroid. The hint here of the trouble in the parents’ relationship is the first indicator of the sombre mood that dominates the later exchanges.

The show is basically structured around a series of stories from Kendall’s life, past and present. As the gig progresses, they become more intricate, jumping decade to decade, revisiting characters and scenarios in different contexts. As they do, the opportunities to laugh become fewer. Kendall recognises this, building in some much-needed relief moments, with digressions allowing her to glide between sections without losing her audience. Even a technical glitch on the night (faulty mic) doesn’t detract from the cohesion of the performance. This particular interruption comes during one of these asides, while Kendall is extolling the benefits of night-time toilet use. Sensing that perhaps the audience wasn’t quite going along with the bit, she uses the downtime to ask the front rows what they think of it. Instead of taking their advice, she doubles down on the routine, making it all the funnier and working an impromptu callback into a later bit.

Kendall’s storytelling ability has always been one of her strengths as a performer – take last year’s Shaken as a case in point – but One-Seventeen takes it to a new level. It feels almost perverse to compare a work so personal to another comic’s, but the comparisons with Daniel Kitson’s stand-up/theatre hybrids is inevitable. What makes this different is that it is so much more real. Whereas Kitson’s characters are essentially products of his polyphonic imagination, Kendall’s are part of her life offstage. Comics have built entire careers on material harvested from their family lives: here, however, Kendall uses these shared experiences to shine a light on the fundamental importance of the stories we tell ourselves and those around us when trying to make sense of the cosmic whirl that is life.

You get the sense that sentimentality doesn’t really cut it with her in her day-to-day. At no point is there even a suggestion of the mawkishness that could so easily undercut the gravity of the situations or the dignity of Kendall’s responses. Fittingly, the show ends with a very short story written by Kendall after receiving some particularly bad news. There is no happy ending; life goes on regardless. As her father says: “good luck, bad luck, you just can’t tell”. The power of Kendall’s storytelling, however, is indisputable.  

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The Blurb

Nominated twice for the Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Show and total Fringe sell-out 2015 and 2016, Sarah Kendall returns with her brand-new show One-Seventeen. A blistering new hour of storytelling from the creator and star of the hit BBC Radio 4 series Australian Trilogy. 'Gnarly, propulsive, involving, vivid, cathartic and very funny' **** (Times). 'Knocked the wind out of my sails' ***** (Herald). **** (Scotsman).