Like Hannah Gadsby and Richard Gadd before him, Jonny Pelham is revisiting experiences latent in his previous Fringe hours.
Jonny Pelham: Off Limits, Just the Tonic @ The Caves, Edinburgh * * * *
And like them, he's disclosing the true account of his sexual abuse. Yet where he differs from the recent Edinburgh Comedy Award winners is that he doesn't build up to, or save it for a reveal, disclosing the experience matter-of-factly in the opening minutes. Partly that's because he isn't seeking to deliver a “sad play”. But partly it's because his abuse took place at the age of eight, at the hands of a family friend, affecting his capacity to process it.
He is, he reassures, currently the happiest he's ever been, having recently moved in with his girlfriend. Given that he previously lived in a cesspit with fellow dysfunctional comedians, that's no great elevation. Yet he's also in therapy, appreciating how the relationship, as he saw it at the time, affected his psychological, romantic and sexual development. Strikingly, Pelham has retained little anger towards his abuser, part of his disengagement with reality and retreat into fantasy. A virgin at 25, he'd only belatedly worried about finding love. And the bumbling, beta male humour of his previous shows' dating mishaps are replaced with harder-edged, sardonic wit that capitalises on his misfortune. It's no coincidence that his favourite jokes are probably the two darkest in the show, their beyond-the-pale premises setting them apart.
Related simply, and from the heart, there's no overlooking the trauma that Pelham has now acknowledged. But he makes a strong argument for understanding society's difficulty in processing it too, contesting the conflation of child abusers with non-offending paedophiles. Unquestionably dark, Off Limits is also deeply humane. And it's far funnier than you'd be inclined to imagine.
Until 25 August