Sue Perkins: Blundering through Asia
New York Times Main Theatre
Edinburgh International Book Festival
1.30pm. 22ndAugust, 2019
reviewed by Paul Thompson
After this event, I exchanged a few words with Jackie McGlone, who had chaired it. We confessed we’d both fallen a bit in love with Sue Perkins; this wasn’t going to be of any use to the three of us, because Jackie’s straight, Sue’s gay, and I’m male. Last I checked. Jackie told me that this follow-up to her first event that Sue had agreed to do at short notice, about her book East of Croydon – I hope no one needs me to explain the references in that title – had turned out to be totally different from the first one. This was due, of course, to Sue’s instantaneous wit, her never being lost for words or for ideas to express in those words. In fact, she had us laughing today without saying a word, just on the basis of a few facial expressions.
Sue Perkins is, of course, a very familiar figure in comedy and broadcasting. The more I listened to her and watched her today, the more I began to see – or rather suspect – that her public face was not all there was to her. I could see an occasional hint that there was a side to her that would only be revealed at home, with her boots off, to a partner. Then she would take a vacation from the Sue Perkins we all see, and with whom Jackie and I had just fallen in love, from her public persona. There is probably a space where she can be flat, or irritable, or just ordinary. That is not to say that her public persona is a false one, it can’t be, it’s essential, it’s Sue Perkins and that’s that. No one can do what she does without it coming from something dominant in their character.
On that basis, she had the audience in a sell-out NYT Theatre in the palm of her hand. We laughed, we were moved, and sometimes, due to her description of her experiences in Southeast Asia – notably the one about pig’s offal flying everywhere – we were close to upchucking. As Sue says, “It’s impossible to downchuck!” The choice of food in Southeast Asia, she told us, was between the unfamiliar dishes that the locals eat, and their attempts at Western cuisine. Her advice was not to be tempted by the apparently familiar; for example, they don’t really do dairy, so a Cambodian milkshake may very well have “a heavy back-taste of haddock.”
Sue’s moments of seriousness moved us. “How pretty poverty looks,” she said, “when you don’t have to live it.” She described a journey to a glacier, a place of pilgrimage high on a mountain, and likened the experience of silence and barrenness to transcendental meditation, to a loss of self, so that the gradual descent involved recognising objects like trees, colours, and the sound of human activity with something like surprise. Speaking of street children, and wanting to avoid the whole “white saviour” thing, she spoke about the only things she could give them having been an afternoon of uproarious playtime, and a few pairs of Converse shoes in sizes far too big for their feet. The humour of her delivery only made it more poignant.
Hilarity came in her description of teaching a few words of English to the women of a remote Cambodian community, without any interpreter to help them out. Sue had succeeding in teaching them how to count from one to ten, when she noticed that they were enthusiastically pointing to their upper torsos. She realised they wanted to know the word for breasts in English, so she taught them “Boobs.”
“Booooooooobs!” they all repeated in wonder and delight.
Then they began to point at their crotches, and Sue realised that they wanted another anatomical term in her native language. That was the moment when she went to pieces and ended up teaching them a non-existent word that sounded a bit Welsh. Honestly, Sue, what are you like! So there’s that, there’s therapy, there’s her mother, there’s her father, there’s her attitude to death, and there’s clinging to the back of a donkey at the edge of a thousand-foot drop, there’s a baby crying in the audience – “Ah, the sound of Brexit!” – and ultimately there’s a queue yea deep and yea long wanting copies of her book signed. That’s what it’s like with a headliner at the EIBF.
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