Ayesha Hazarika – State of the Nation
Soho Theatre, London
“Welcome to an evening of strong and stable comedy. Comedy means comedy and I intend to make a success of it,” deadpans Ayesha Hazarika. Of course, timing is everything for a comedian, and Hazarika’s timing couldn’t get any worse. The day after beginning her run at Soho theatre Theresa May called the general election, and Hazarika quickly had to rewrite her show. She’s made a good fist of it. But then, having previously worked as special adviser to both Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband she certainly doesn’t lack for material.
Hazarika (whose “brown skin and white teeth are the exact opposite of most Glaswegians”) also worked on the Remain campaign, which she admits, makes her the Jonah of British politics. Describing her return to comedy as ‘the comeback nobody wanted’ – she is only here because she lost her job – Hazarika nonetheless transfers her skills, most noticeably the ability to stay on top of an ever-changing news agenda, with aplomb, and takes an obvious delight in saying things that would have been unthinkable in her previous job. “Prince Philip has retired” asserts Hazarika, “because since Brexit there is so much casual racism around that his work is now done,” and feels for Ivanka Trump “having to go to work every day knowing that the boss wants to sleep with you!”
In fact, a woman’s place in politics, or rather the lack of women in politics is what raises her show above your average political stand-up. State of the Nation is as much a personal manifesto as an, albeit often hilarious, comedy hour. It is shocking just how often Harriet Harman was the last person to be told, well… anything. Often Harman (with Hazarika in tow) would be forced to gatecrash important meetings populated by generic male staffers simply to find out what was going on. “Where were the working class, minorities and people from outside London? Where were all the women?” ponders Hazarika. Presumably the women were on the Labour Party’s pink election bus. Hazarika is unapologetic about her role in getting the bus on the road, only to find it visited by nonplussed, highly suspicious male colleagues, including Ed Balls who brought cupcakes he had spent the night baking only to decorate them with glace cherries which “looked like nipples”.
Funny as Hazarika is, the best material in this show is the stuff that actually happened. Before briefing Gordon Brown on LGBT issues, Brown told her dismissively; “I know all about the BLTs, and the gays too!” Ed Miliband was no better, less concerned with rehearsing a PM’s Questions about badgers than with whether or not he actually looked like a badger. Hazarika even gleefully recalls Alastair Campbell having an (actual) pissing contest with Bear Grylls.
In fact, many of the anecdotes are almost too painful to laugh at, and the reason, according to the woman recounting them, why Labour is currently unelectable. She points out that the last Labour manifesto contained more references to football regulation than older women, and admits this election, at least, is a lost cause. Not that she gives May any credit. She likens beating Jeremy Corbyn to “winning Wimbledon against a wheelie bin”. Hazarika is then joined on stage by the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis for a discussion about the future of the party, and it’s a good one, that could run for hours if time permitted. After an hour in Hazarika’s company I’m not sure how many women will be tempted to join the political fray – her own experiences do not bode well – but for a comedian her time spent on the inside, and all too often on the outside, makes for an unusually enlightening hour of comedy. So what if you’re laughing with one hand held over your mouth in sheer horror? I can’t wait for the book!