How far can comedy go? Carissa Lee ponders Truly Madly Britney’s take on fan culture at Melbourne’s Midsumma festival
Stan culture is a recent internet-fuelled trend that, like many things on the internet, can be in turns toxic, funny or all-consuming. It’s named after Enimem’s 2000 hit Stan, a story about a man who obsesses about his favourite rapper until he kills his own girlfriend.
This obsession with celebrities isn’t new: extreme instances include Charles Manson, who claimed that subliminal messages in the Beatles’ song Helter Skelter inspired the Sharon Tate killings, or and Mark David Chapman’s fatal obsession with John Lennon. But stan culture is a new level of fandom that goes beyond the admiration of an artist’s work. It’s driven by social media, which permits an extra sense of connection to the personal details of a celebrity’s life.
The first real glimpse was in the early days of MySpace, when an emotionally distressed Chris Crocker uploaded his infamous video pleading with the world to “leave Britney alone’”. Now it has escalated to actions such as fans stalking and breaking into celebrities’ homes, a suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester and fans telling actor and mental health advocate Pete Davidson to kill himself following his very public break-up.
Alberto di Trioa’s Truly Madly Britney at Theatre Works explores the lengths that die-hard fans will go to, to be physically close to their favourite celebrity. Aussie couple Adam (Nick Clark) and Steve (Adam Garner) have just arrived in Las Vegas with meet-and-greet tickets to a Britney Spears concert. After various adventures – being mistaken for Savage Garden and a Britney meltdown reenactment gone wrong – they settle into an awkward Airbnb situation with sexually repressed fellow Britney fanatic Chad (Alex Thew) and discover that the show they’re meant to be seeing is cancelled.
In a ploy to scalp tickets for another show, Steve meets the statuesque white trash mum Judy (Louisa Wall), whose terminally ill son Kevin (Karl Richmond) has meet-and-greet tickets for another show. Steve cooks up an awful plot to steal the tickets from Judy and Kevin, much to Adam’s unhappiness, and things go even more awry.
Bethany J Fellows’ stage design is simple, with a plain white floor, and a black wall as backdrop, with simple white texts projecting locations above a set of metal stairs upstage. Two stage managers assist with the scene changes, moving beds and cleaning up spills, and assist with the pumps used for a pretty unnecessary vomiting scene that led to a lengthy clean-up break.
Garner as Steve is a strong performer, with his Mindy Kalingesque “exqueeze me?”, borderline hysteria and moments of vulnerability in which only Britney can make him feel safe. Although he masters the melodramatic in his dynamic with the more stoic Clark, he is able to play the “straight man” (ha), sometimes looking at the audience as if he’s he’s in The Office. The dynamic between Adam and Steve works very well: Adam is seemingly stable when Steve is next-level neurotic.
Another strong player is the enjoyably psychotic Thew as the trigger-happy, not-as-straight-as-he’d-like-to-be Chad. His outbursts – “jet fuel does not melt steel beams” (a 9/11 reference), or casually offering ketamine when Steve has a panic attack – make for a delightfully unhinged performance. Louisa Wall as Judy is hilarious as a leggy cacophony of nasal profanity and sequins. However, it feels like her kink for guns goes a little too far when an execution in front of her causes to orgasm. Or maybe that’s a thing? I don’t want to kink-shame, but damn.
An aspect of Truly Madly Britney that I found troubling was the terminally ill Kevin character. The jokes about his inevitable demise and the way his mother used his illness as a way to meet Britney Spears, and (spoiler) him being ok with being shot to death was disturbing. I understand that queer humour can be dark, but this hit me hard as one of my friends was diagnosed with cancer last year. In a world where “punching down” on issues of race, gender, queerdom, disability, identity, and so on is perceived to be (for the most part rightfully) off-limits, why not the terminally ill?
The heightened queer comedy touches on other sensitive topics, such as Adam’s depression and Steve’s panic attacks. It also, through Adam and Steve’s relationship, highlights the complex nature of love and its tricky dynamics, how we try to make it work by adjusting the balances between us. In these moments, we are reminded that these are humans telling us a story, and the grotesquely politically incorrect approach to just about everything in this play is a commentary on the narcissism of ‘stan’ culture, as opposed to something that this ensemble condones. It makes me wonder though: when audiences laugh at these moments, as when people laugh racist or sexist jokes, are we in fact validating what is supposedly being mocked? Can we really critique shitty behaviour if all we’re doing is laughing at it?
Company Stage Mom delivers a strong, at times brutal and cheesy insight of what stan culture can really do to people, and although it’s often funny, there’s also a troubling sense of entitlement. Although Chad is hilarious and loveable, what would have happened if he’d actually met Britney? The fact that he brings a gun makes me think, nothing good. Through its syrupy coating of thick American accents, gun obsession and desperation for celebrity, Truly Madly Britney illustrates the extremes people will go to in the name of fandom. This show is a gloriously trashy, non-PC comedy, but the damage that powers people who trick terminally ill people, use others as sexual pawns, destroy relationships and gun people down is very real. I’m still undecided as to whether I feel ok about laughing at it.
Truly Madly Britney, written and produced by Alberto Di Troia, directed by Hannah Fallowfield. Sound design and composition by Sidney Millar, designed by Bethany J Fellows, lighting design by Rachel Zany Lee. Performed by Adam Garner, Nick Clark, Chanella Macri, Alex Thew, Louisa Wall, Karl Richmond. Truly Madly Britney at the Theatreworks. Until February 9. Bookings
Theatre Works seating allows for wheelchair access and the use of mobility aids. Please discuss your requirements with box office staff at the time of booking.