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Ben Stevenson's RATBAG: A MICF Meditation on Losing Those Who Shaped You

Ratbag is a show about Stevenson’s late mother, who seems to be what I can only describe as a wonderful and complex woman, and that is a testament to Stevenson’s performance and comedy. Stevenson uses the formula of dropping a shocking revelation a quarter into his show in an attempt to add gravity to the jokes made earlier and to provide depth to the rest of the show. Few can do this well, but Stevenson made this his own in what can only be a bravo.

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I must admit I did wince at some opening jokes at Ratbag, the Ben Stevenson show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. There were a few jabs about bogans--certain colloquialisms and behaviours that are popular to point out in Australian culture. While I recognised some of these characters from my own hometown--the burnout gender reveal was a bit too familiar--there is something so unappealing about jabbing a joke about bogans to a Fitzroy crowd filled with some Waspy types who lap any excuse up to laugh at people less than them. But I must say I regret wincing, as Ben Stevenson’s jokes had a purpose, one that was filled with such love and humour that I couldn’t help but be moved, no matter if certain audience members laughed a bit too hard at some jokes.

Ratbag is a show about Stevenson’s late mother, who seems to be what I can only describe as a wonderful and complex woman, and that is a testament to Stevenson’s performance and comedy. Stevenson uses the formula of dropping a shocking revelation a quarter into his show in an attempt to add gravity to the jokes made earlier and to provide depth to the rest of the show. Few can do this well, but Stevenson made this his own in what can only be a bravo.

The news of his mother’s death wasn’t as shocking as it could have been when he dropped them after jokes about the new Bogan Airline, Coffs Harbour and Ned Kelly. He had a significant bit about the mother’s boycotting tendencies. He went to great lengths to describe why his mother referred to Stevenson as a ratbag, which he said was more of an affirmation than a revelation. Yet, its timing and delivery were still executed in a thoughtful manner. And what followed was a funny and poignant discussion about grief and honouring his mother the best way he knows how–by being a ratbag.

We learn a lot from our mothers. Stevenson credits her with his aim to always do what's right, including jokes about boycotting unethical companies like BP and the patriarchal nature of the plastic surgery industry while still not being afraid to comment on his own selfishness (if his fiancé gets Botox, how else can he know when she’s mad at him?). He tells funny anecdotes that, in the wrong hands, could be treated as a lazy critique, reducing her to a stereotype, like getting day-drunk in Bali and standing up for her son over a $5 scam. Instead, he handles it with a delicate nature that it's clear to see the motivations and complexities behind this woman who just loved her children and stood by her values. But he never takes himself or her so seriously that he forgets the audience came to laugh, and it's pretty hard not to.

His mother is depicted as unique but familiar, a woman we may all know but a woman who stands alone. It is a loving characterisation that made me forgive the jokes from the beginning. You forgive the jokes towards the end because those jokes clearly come from a place of love. And as someone who has some incredible and resilient working women in their life, I appreciate poking fun at them with jokes you know they'd enjoy and would make themselves.

 
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The harpsichords sound like skeletons. The wings of butterflies open and close like lungs. The trees are murdered for pianos. The dust in the abandoned antique store glows gently, as if made from the powdered skulls of fairies and changelings. Welcome to the weird and wonky world of Edition Six, Phantasmagoria. We bid you to tread carefully...

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