Review: Geraldine Hickey’s ‘What a Surprise’ is a triumph of low stakes, high reward comedy

Review: Geraldine Hickey’s ‘What a Surprise’ is a triumph of low stakes, high reward comedy

Words By August Billy


During her allotted five minutes at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala, Geraldine Hickey said the word “agapanthus” approximately 25 times. The bit –­ which centred on digging out some obstinate agapanthus and installing a “lesbian pit” in her backyard – was a perfect snapshot of Hickey’s easy-going, sensually tickling comedy style.

I don’t mean sensual in a Serge Gainsbourg, ‘Je T’aime’ sort of way. Rather, Hickey’s comedy recognises that humour arises from all our senses, is often arational and isn’t dependent on shock value.

Hickey’s hour-long comedy festival show may be called What a Surprise, but her preference is to bring the audience on-side at the outset and then take pleasure in making us laugh. The show’s contents are easily summarised: Hickey turned 40, had a big party and accepted a marriage proposal from her long-term girlfriend.

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But despite the fairly tight narrative structure, at no point did Hickey announce, “This is a story about my life – pay attention!” Or if she did, we were too busy delighting in her on-stage effortlessness and light-hearted self-deprecation to notice the imposition of any boundaries.

As anyone who’s listened to Triple R’s Breakfasters over the last five years can attest, there’s an essential niceness to Hickey’s comedy. That could be seen as a backhanded characterisation, but Hickey’s penchant for low stakes subjective analysis is one of her key strengths.

What a Surprise never became cloying or utterly banal in the vein of Michael McIntyre, even as Hickey described family vacations, shopping for engagement rings, and dealing with disappointing birthday parties. At the same time, while there is something implicitly progressive about a gay woman speaking about turning 40, getting engaged and – brace yourself – enjoying herself, What a Surprise wasn’t interested in moralising or skewering easy targets.

What energised the show was a simple-yet-comedically-mature understanding that, a lot of the time, our behaviour and the backdrop of our lives can be pretty silly. Hickey spent years falsely proposing to her partner, and supplied video evidence to prove how tired the gag became. Based on no material evidence, she assumed a jumping castle would arrive at her 40th (it never did). And good luck leaving the show without your tongue tied around the phrase “Cape Liptrap Lighthouse”.

Life is often excruciatingly difficult or overly complex, but What a Surprise didn’t dwell on the prickly stuff. Hickey was far more interested in reminding us of how good it feels to sit in a room full of people and laugh at absurd flights of fancy and everyday embarrassments.

Catch Geraldine Hickey at Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2021 from now until Sunday April 18 (bar Mondays). Find out more here.