At most comedy festivals, you get your big names, your phoning-it-ins, and your ambitious up-and-comers bringing their ‘A’ game to every performance, even if it’s just ordering a drink at the bar.
But if the audiences are incredibly lucky, they’ll find themselves sitting and watching a comedian testing their skills, and taking comedy to new and fascinating places. Enter Damian Callinan. At the Brisbane Comedy Festival (11 March).
If you’re a fan of Australian sketch comedy, you’re probably nodding and looking pretty impressed right now. For those not nodding, Callinan is ‘that guy’: the one whose face is familiar to comedy fans even if his name escapes them.
Callinan has a reputation as a fantastic comedian with a gift for creating emotionally real, compelling characters: but even so, ‘The Lost WW1 Diary’ seemed a stretch. A comedy show about a soldier’s experiences in WW1 reeks of career suicide.
One hundred years on, we don’t really joke about the ANZACs. With such a high body count, it’s hard to see humour beyond the obligatory mocking of English strategising. But we’ve also mythologised the ANZACs to the point where honest conversations are often met with criticism and accusations of being un-Australian. We’ve made superheroes of our ancestors, and that makes it hard to acknowledge their innate ordinariness.
Despite the risks, Callinan has created a masterful work equal parts hilarious, honest, and heart-breaking. The characters are so real it’s hard not to cry for them in their darker moments, so vividly alive that it’s easy to forget you’re watching one man on a stage.
This is a one-man show that tells more about the ANZACs than the slew of dryly-spoken documentaries and political speeches we’ve become accustomed to during the centenary fanfare. ‘The Lost WW1 Diary’ is mesmerising in its honesty, stripping away the mythology to look at the realities of life as an ANZAC.
Callinan has a gift for connecting with his characters, and his tear-filled gaze beneath the spotlights is the sort of haunting image show-goers can’t help but be shaken by. Having said that, though, the laughter outweighs the tears.
Gallows humour was a large part of the ANZAC myth, and Callinan has captured that sense of foreboding and reckless laughter near perfectly. This isn’t a show where you’ll laugh for an hour and go about your life. It stays with you, the way the best creative works linger on in the heart and mind.
‘The Lost WW1 Diary’ says a lot, even when it’s very deliberately silent. Callinan doesn’t preach, nor exaggerate heroism. His story is about ordinary men pressed into extraordinary circumstances.
And that’s where the magic lies. There are no tricks, no fog machines: just a gifted storyteller with a few props telling a story we all know but haven’t really understood at an emotional level.
If you have a chance to see ‘The Lost WW1 Diary’, take it. The world needs a good, thought-provoking laugh.