Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Doctor Brown is steadily becoming an international phenomenon. Having performed across the globe from Adelaide to Dubai, his weird, rule-breaking style has caused a stir everywhere he has performed it.
Forget everything you thought you understood about your sense of humour. Forget everything you thought stand-up comedy was. Doctor Brown is going to show you otherwise. Playing with every convention of theatre and comedy, from when it should start (definitely not when the crowd has sat down and become quiet), to how much talking should be done (wait until at least half way through the show to make a sound), and whether you should touch audience members (you should, and often). The first time I saw Doctor Brown perform was at the 2010 Adelaide Fringe Festival in a tiny room where most of the tickets were given away. It is truly delighting to see him playing to a packed house at the Belly Button, getting the kind of accolades he deserves, for this man is – and I don’t use this word lightly – a genius.
Doctor Brown (real name Phil Burgers), has an extraordinary way of taking human behaviour – movement, gesture, dress, eye-contact – out of context, putting it under a spotlight and making us realise how silly we must look every day, and the bizarre signals we have come up with for non-verbal communication. He is not making any points here – but in a way it’s an extremely abstracted form of observational comedy. He says “look at us people and the strange things we do every day”, but mostly without saying anything at all. But then again, maybe it’s a just funny because he’s wearing a quasi-Chinese silk robe, tatty slippers and a traditional-style Chinese hat as he does it. One of the chief things he holds up for inspection is sex and sexuality. The centerpiece of the show is a skit in which Burgers plays both participants in a make-out scene that goes much, much too far. There are often homoerotic overtones to his work, as well as cross-dressing and a small amount of nudity, so it’s not for the prudish (but I would encourage prudes to experience this hour of lunacy).
Burgers’ other great strength is in getting his audience to do things. Odd things. He will get them on stage and make them maybe the most uncomfortable that they’ve ever been. But somehow, Burgers knows that putting someone in front of a crowd brings out the performer in the shyest of people, and they don’t want to disappoint the rest of the audience by opting out. Having seen Burgers on a previous occasion coerce my own mother onto the stage to improvise a scene with him, I know that he is confident with pushing people right to the very limit of what they are willing to do, and then coaxing them a little further. This will sometimes involve getting much, much more intimate with him than you expect when you go along to see a comedy show. His disregard for the boundaries of respectable interaction between strangers is astonishing. If you value your personal space, I sincerely advise sitting somewhere other than the front row.
What Doctor Brown offers is catharsis. Some of his skits are frankly disgusting: I literally gagged, as well as cried with laughter during this show. Grotesquery and awkwardness abound. You watch him toss furniture around, throw food at the wall and take his clothes off in public, and it is watching and sometimes participating in these transgressions of social mores that make this show such a release. Not everyone will love this comedian. I’m sure there are many who would hate him. However I defy anyone to say they don’t feel something very strongly about his work either way. You come away dazzled, energised and slightly bushwhacked, and with the firm knowledge that you have just experienced something entirely extraordinary.