Review: 50 Shades of Ray – a comic safe space for the anxious

Erin Harrington reviews Ray Shipley’s standup hour 50 Shades of Ray at Little Andromeda, 15 April 2023.

Hello, nice audience member, are you an anxious person? Probably. If so, Billy T-nominated comedian Ray Shipley’s latest comedy hour, 50 Shades of Ray, is a safe space. If not, keep it to yourself and let your introvert friend be amongst their people.

Shipley’s looking dapper in a bowtie and suspenders, but behind them hangs a series of ominous looking cards marked WORRIES. Relatable, honestly, but also a helpful cipher for the show, which explores seemingly contrary impulses. The first is to be a fancy famous put-together person who people will love and admire, and who will inspire others through their art and savvy hot takes. The other is to moan ‘help’ in a low whine because ever since childhood you’ve known the world is terribly frightening and in need of constant micromanaging. I find some ‘comedy of anxiety’ a bit excruciating, but Shipley’s work isn’t the usual race to the bottom. It’s a cheerful and witty show that reassures us that we’re all in this together, and we’re going to have a very nice time.

Shipley quickly and cleverly establishes a warm, relaxed sense of intimacy out of an almost pathological need to check in (and keep checking in) with us. Those who have been to one of Shipley’s many great Late Night Poetry Hours will be familiar with the atmosphere and the feeling of community. The storytelling is well-structured, employing sharp word-play and well-judged callbacks, and resolving with a satisfying conceit that embraces the show’s interest in catastrophising. We are led through childhood playground experiences, hierarchies in the crafting world, a damp trip to Disneyland, attempts to contact Hollywood film executives, and various teenaged drifts in and out of the closet (and Anglicanism). Throughout, the question: what’s a queer, fretful, fame-obsessed, introverted homebody to do in a world made for people who want to be cops and rugby stars? Infiltrate university theatre groups and cry in the props closet, mostly.

Entertaining, yes, but 50 Shades of Ray also intelligently subverts a few of our expectations about some well-established genres of stand-up and storytelling. One is the confessional ‘portrait of a comic persona’ show, in which the comedian bears their soul to ask for understanding – a mode that’s basically been highjacked by social media’s (and performance poetry’s) obsession with extreme disclosure. The other is the way coming out narratives are sometimes presented as linear, with clear story beats. Here Shipley takes a more subtle and more satisfying route. They duck on and off a meandering, messy path through queerness, identity and uncertainty in a world made for straights (in all sense of the world), without offering a neat and tidy resolution (but lots of jokes).

Some takeaways: anxiety isn’t something to heroically overcome but a strange creature to befriend; the tension between fame whoring and being a fearful ball of crochet yarn hiding under the covers doesn’t need to be resolved; Rowling sucks but Harry Potter can still (maybe?) be great. And it’s funny, and needs to be laughed at, because the alternative is [blank]. 50 Shades of Ray is a wickedly clever hour of not-therapy – and if you’re lucky you’ll also get an anxious, hand-illustrated GQ (Get Queer) zine on your seat so you can take some worries home with you, and maybe share your own.

50 Shades of Ray plays at the NZ International Comedy Festival in Wellington from 9 – 13 May, and in Auckland from 16 – 20 May.

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