Written & Performed by Kate Berlant
Dir. Bo Burnham
Till Sat 30 Sep 23, 70 minutes
Sept 11th, 2023
photo credit © Emilio Madrid
SOHO Theatre is one of the few theatres in London that has an EdFringe vibe to it. There are always multiple shows on every night, and it’s easy to miss what’s right in front of you. Heading into the Main House to see KATE, a recent Broadway transfer originally directed by Bo Burnham, I didn’t notice all the near-life-sized black and white images of Kate Berlant splattered all over the walls. And getting into the lobby of the Main House, I didn’t notice Kate sitting there in dark sunglasses messing around on her phone, with a placard around her neck saying "Ignore me", I did initially, but then went back to get a picture.
As the audience takes their seats, the large screen on the stage informs us that the show will begin in 5 minutes. These 5 minutes count down, and a series of images and words pop up. Included in this are some of the biggest acting teachers, such as Stella Adler and Stanislavski. On reflection, I can see how this really adds to the historical tone that Berlant and Burnham created. The clock reaches zero, and KATE begins with an introduction by a cockney stagehand.
Kate Berlant is a physical performer at the Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Phylls Diller, and Lily Tomlin schools. She uses everything to not only tell a story but also to ensure she gets a laugh. This is achieved early on when Berlant breaks character and abuses the fourth wall to explain what she's doing and why she's doing it. These moments are quick and interestingly personal. Berlant has a knack for talking to her audiences in a conversational way that makes the jokes land even more smoothly. One thing is certain: you're getting a lot of material in your 70 minutes.
KATE is fictional, but there are more than a few instances where I began to think that this was going to go deeper and that the show was going to end with some real emotional narratives. Where the artist takes off their wig, removes their make-up, or steps out of the light and talks directly to the audience. Berlant and Burnham don’t do that, not in the slightest, and for me, that’s where the real strength of this piece lies.
"Berlant made you believe it all, every word, and for a brief moment I found myself transfixed as she rolled her flashlight around the first few rows of the theatre."
Burnham was one of the original YouTubers, someone who took advantage of new technology to broadcast himself to millions of monitors around the world. It's a no-brainer that Burnham would direct KATE, a show that, at its core, is about narcissism in the entertainment industry. And it became clear in the first 5 minutes that Berlant and Burnham had forged a tight creative connection—one that is likely to be repeated in the near future.
This is a show full of weirdly delightful highlights, but some of my favourites include Kate's moments on the porch, the casting office, and the strange man Kate meets at a club in New York and goes back to his apartment. The audience goes on a journey through Kate's childhood, from getting her first camera to the death of her beloved and supportive father. But the standout moment in the show, for me, was the "Jazz Bar." This took the show to a different level; it was a complex scene that included some deliciously awkward audience participation. This was also a moment that gave KATE the diverse dimensions that few shows would have tried to achieve. Berlant made you believe it all, every word, and for a brief moment I found myself transfixed as she rolled her flashlight around the first few rows of the theatre.
By not having that emotional punch forced into a place when it’s not needed, Berlant and Burnham have created a bona fide character-comedy show that is breathtaking. One wonders how the Broadway audience took this show, and I am also more than intrigued by how they took to the brutal words Kate spews out towards her audience. British audiences love being "abused," and there was no shortage of jokes aimed at us at Soho Theatre. These moments, towards the end, are quick-fire and unrelenting, and we begin to anticipate the cruel comments about 'our' beloved Soho Theatre, but it's the self-depricating comments that really shine here.
It is a cliché, but, and God, I hate saying it, the hype is real. KATE offers a rare mix of comedy, standup, and theatre that has been crafted by a duo who have, quite literally, creatively come together to make a show that is genuinely unlike anything you’ve seen before. It has a perfect mix of satire, silliness, and a stunning insight into Berlant’s wickedly dark sense of humour. KATE is one of the best comedy shows I’ve seen this year, and it will be hard to top.