Always willing to take on difficult subjects, this year Kiri Pritchard-McLean explores gaslighting, sexism and complicity, writes Jay Richardson
Itinerant, mentally unstable and revelling in their infamy, the kinship between comedians and serial killers is disturbingly close, Kiri Pritchard-McLean admits with a sly smile.
We’re all socialised, especially in an industry where we’re taught that there’s only one chair for women on telly. How can you not see other women as a threat?
“So many comedians are into serial killers,” adds Pritchard-McLean, the co-host of All Killa No Filla, her hit podcast about such monsters. Revealing a famous comic’s theory that “they thrive in areas of chaos and lots of people moving around”, she reckons he “may well be right about the refugee crisis.
“We’ll have to see about Brexit. That might just be another way things are going to the f***ing wall.”
Mass murderers intrigue for what they reveal about society. Gary Ridgway became the US’s most prolific ever “because he killed sex workers and nobody cared”. Pritchard-McLean’s sketch group, the macabre Gein’s Family Giftshop, took their name from bodysnatcher Ed Gein, who inspired such films as Psycho, The Silence Of The Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Driven by guilt for funnelling a private education her parents could scarcely afford into comedy, Pritchard-McLean has striven to make her stand-up “count” since 2010. Winner of best club comedian, and compère at this year’s Chortle Awards, she’s a highly respected and sequinned circuit act who takes great effort to dress fabulously. “Because I know that people have paid for a babysitter and nice bottle of wine, plus I love old-school showbusiness.”
At the same time, after writing for and directing Edinburgh Comedy Award-nominated Gein’s, she understands how to craft a successful Fringe hour. Rather than simply present the best of her club set, her 2016 debut, Hysterical Woman, was a definitive statement about the UK comedy scene’s sexism. It was angry, accessible and very funny.
“I was bored of people telling me about my experience and sick of the conversation being dominated by guys,” she recalls. “You can have sympathy but not true empathy. And also – this sounds bad – but women who don’t do stand-up talking about it. Well, how the f*** would you know? Come and play the clubs I play and tell me. I was in a really unique position to present that reality.”
Although confident about what constitutes worthwhile comedy, Pritchard-McLean reflexively chides herself for “ideas above my station”, citing the “mechanism for change” she sought to incorporate into her 2017 follow-up, Appropriate Adult, in which she shared the dark story of a vulnerable teenage girl she’d mentored. The challenge, as when she advocates adoption, is to not overwhelm audiences. “I want them to see I’m talking about something I care about and how they can take first steps if that’s something they might also want to do.”
Her Edinburgh shows are conceived as “what’s no-one talking about that they should be talking about, or who’s having the wrong conversation” she says. This year’s was meant to be based on correspondence with non-offending paedophiles. But while “broken brains” remain the erstwhile psychology student’s chief fascination, she’s put them “on ice” to deal with her own, after her long-term relationship failed amid accusations of infidelity and “gaslighting”.
From the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, the phenomenon of gaslighting revolves around the psychological manipulation of someone, making them question their own memory, perception and sanity. “What’s fascinating is that this behaviour has existed forever,” Pritchard-McLean reflects. “But it’s only in the last few years that the term has become popular enough for people to articulate the experience.”
Intensely personal and emotionally gruelling, her show isn’t revenge, she says. All names have been changed and she’s “loath” to bring her ex-boyfriend “into it any more than I have to because I want to tell my story”. Instead, Victim,
Complex is a societal call for everyone to “check their behaviour. Because you never know what little thing can tip people into thinking, ‘F***ing hell, I’m going mad.’ We need to be compassionate.”
In the show, she admits to “obsession with another woman, how I was very unkind to her and made her miserable.
“That’s very hard to admit for someone who …” she adds with self-mocking emphasis “… is absolutely feminist. That I willingly vilified another woman as part of my problems, projected all my own stuff on to her. I’m trying to take responsibility. I like to think I’m open-minded but we’re all socialised. Especially in an industry like this, where we’re taught that there’s only one chair for us on telly. How can you not see other women as a threat or competition?”
Currently developing a sitcom script about sisters in a charity shop with shades of Burke and Hare, she’s also looking forward to once again hosting Amusical at the Fringe with Jayde Adams. A one-off in which comics semi-competently sing their favourite showtunes, it’s been dubbed “the comedians’ school play” by stand-up David Morgan. “All homemade costumes, it’s brilliant!” she enthuses.
Pritchard-McLean and Rachel Fairburn are also recording four live episodes of All Killa. Although they didn’t know each other before beginning the podcast in 2015, despite living on the same Manchester street, she attributes its international impact to theirs being “a genuine female friendship … we get Americans telling us we’re so filthy and I have to explain ‘that’s how women speak when you’re not around’”. A US mini-tour begins next month. But catch it at the Fringe while there’s still “so much slanderous stuff about celebrities!” she laughs.