Note: This review is from the 2019 Fringe

This is clever. Funny In Real Life is a deconstruction of the comedian’s art – the kind of thing Fringe performers are wont to do and make overly in-jokey – made as accessible as any mainstream stand-up or theatre show.

Rob Rouse (stand-up comedian) and Helen Rutter (actor and writer) are real-life husband and wife. When he’s on stage, Rouse is prone to over-sharing, as anyone who saw the proctologist exam routine in last year’s Fringe show Are You Sitting Comfortably? will confirm. But it’s never just his own life he’s oversharing. Helen and the kids are taken as fair game (again from last year, see the skit on dangle-weeing his daughter). Is that OK? Is it OK to say these things if it’s exaggerated and distorted and played for laughs? Is it OK to talk about your wife’s sex toys if it’s all in the good cause of opening up and making people feel better about their own foibles? And what do his wife and kids feel about it? Well, we’re about to find out.

Helen is here today herself, and she’s mad. Mad that her personal experiences are being mined for cheap laughs to help hubby’s career. Rouse himself doesn’t see it like that, of course. They’re a family unit; these are his experiences too. Besides, this isn’t the Victorian era. Everyone talks about this stuff. Thus ensues a very public spat, in which Rouse falteringly attempts to do the stand-up set he planned to do, often being graphic or cheeky about his wife while she stands raging at him (which only proves her point). In the style of many a relationship argument, Rouse then responds by throwing her own failings back at her and shouting hypocrisy.

This isn’t just theatre though. It’s proper funny. Rouse is an accomplished, quick-witted comedian, and he keeps the dynamic of a stand-up gig going, audience interaction and all, while juggling the domestic dispute he’s not fully taking on board. For her part, Rutter might fret about being an accessory to her husband’s comedy routines, but she’s fully co-creator and co-performer of this piece, the Wise to his Morecambe (revise your opinion of Little Ern if you think that’s damning her with faint praise).

If there’s a slight downside, it’s that the suspension of disbelief can’t be sustained for a whole hour. Once the spell’s been broken – that this isn’t actually a full-on domestic incident – it’s hard to get it back. Even then, there’s loads to make you think while you’re laughing. Is it worse for Rutter to hire their kids out for £50 for a photoshoot for a well-known outdoors shop, or for Rouse to talk about his daughter’s toileting for laughs? And when Rouse is happy to bend over and re-enact an intimate medical examination, is it so bad for him to be discussing their sex life or his wife giving birth?

The origins of the show might have been a real-life argument that ended in a “this could be a Fringe show” moment. In other words, the kind of conversation industry types have, not normal people. But even if that is the case, it never feels detached from us ordinary folk or revelling in its own cleverness. Funny In Real Life is how to do “meta” without disappearing where that proctologist’s finger went.