Harriet Kemsley review – a smutty uprising against idealised femininity

The comedian reconsidering her life in light of new parenthood is a genre unto itself these days; in the last few months alone, I’ve seen Suzi Ruffell and Travis Jay deliver sets that do something similar to Harriet Kemsley’s. Ostensibly, Honeysuckle Island poses the question: what can Kemsley do to make the world a better – less sexist, less shameful – place for 10-month-old Mabel to grow up in? But that framework never entirely convinces, in a show whose effervescent host seems more excited by the next blue gag or #NoFilter overshare than by her doing-it-for-my-daughter premise.

Fair enough: her smutty comedy is rendered with a winning delinquency, with Kemsley the overgrown woman-child and all these rude words and ideas her shiny new toys. Recent pregnancy and childbirth offers a treasure trove of material to a comic who loves to mock idealised femininity, and her own distance from it. So here we find the manic 35-year-old comparing childbirth to anal sex, canvassing the audience’s sexual health and inducing anaphylactic shock in pursuit of the full-lipped, Kim Kardashian beauty ideal.

It’s a hoot, this stuff, played like an uprising of the (dotty, dissolute, flesh-is-weak) underdog against the impossible standards to which women must measure up. Similar territory, then, to Kemsley’s 2019 set Slutty Joan, which packed a punch that Honeysuckle Island lacks. The title alludes to a fantasy location dreamed up by 11-year-old Harriet, represented here by a cardboard crate containing items from her youth. Each prompts a reminiscence, about body image anxieties, say, or the male gaze – issues with which this new mum hopes her own daughter won’t have to contend.

But the device feels grafted on to a show that – thematic discipline be damned! – careers scattily between good-natured crowd-work (at which Kemsley is very adept), jokes about her post-pregnancy body, and amusing text exchanges with a worryingly imprecise babysitter. As a rumination on this new mum’s ideological commitments to her tot, it won’t get you past the door of the nursery. But in Kemsley’s hands, it’s reckless good fun all the same.

  • Tonight at Warwick Arts Centre, then touring