Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Tom Neenan crouches on stage, meaningfully. His tone is important, calming, and assured. ‘People,’ he greets us. ‘and gentlemen.’ Because that, we should know, is the correct form of address. It’s helpful that we have someone as switched on as Tom Neenan on hand to successfully explain exactly what feminism is (largely, it’s listening to women, although it’s important that we know that Tom Neenan has indeed successfully taught us this lesson, and if we’re going to fuck the patriarchy, such fucking should always be consensual). There are, as you may have already guessed, two Tom Neenans at the heart of It’s Always Infinity. They are both writers, and one of them promises to have playscripts of his previous works in the lobby for sale afterward. It’s almost a disappointment to discover that promise may be a joke.
Tom Neenan (the real one) has carved out a good name for himself at the fringe over the last few years, riffing on all things M.R James to Quatermass, but this year he seeks to unpack perhaps the most terrifying cult of all: that of the male feminist. This show is all about Tom’s missing girlfriend and her cryptic final message, but – as Tom is keen to underline – it’s really about Tom’s own journey, both geographical and metaphorical. His insistence that we recognise his unfailing and grammatically correct support of all women brings to mind Katharine Ryan’s great line where she says that guys who are male feminists make her want to sit on their face – if only to stop them going on about being male feminists.
In short, you rather get the impression that this is Neenan exploring a more disturbing horror story than any he’s done before – indeed, that it’s a warning from Tom to himself (and indeed any men in the audience who are oh-so-willing to laugh loudly at any gag that is at their expense), recognising the risk that pretty much any so called ally has of making the fight more about themselves than others. ‘I’m one of the good guys,’ he intones at one point, and it’s fair to say that the audience response has a reasonable amount of horrified recognition mixed in with the involuntary laughs. Almost any man in the audience who is awake to their own foibles as well as woke will find a delicious lack of humour in how sharp the barbs are: the version of Tom Neenan on stage in Its Always Infinity is (one presumes) a fairground mirror version of reality: far too close to characteristics we recognise to be easily dismissed as mere caricature.
As ever with a Neenan show, there are more elegant gags and word-play packed into the first fifteen minutes that are often seen in a full hour (there are of course great jokes in the other forty five minutes, but a comedy review that doesn’t give them away must be as rare as a play that passes the Bechdel Test .. damn), and with a tantalising mystery running alongside the idea that Tom never actually listens, you have a riddle wrapped up in a Guardian article, inside a Women’s March banner. Tom used to have a neat, horrifying Joan Bakewell flavoured gag as his twitter profile: ‘The thinking woman’s mansplainer’. Like many so right-on ‘meninists’, the monster is not just on twitter: he walks amongst us. Its Always Infinity allows us the space to laugh, whilst remembering not to man-spread.