Fringe review: How I Learned To Hug

By Liz Nicholls,

How I Learned To Hug (Stage 26, The Almanac)

At the outset of his riotous one-man comedy/memoir How I Learned To Hug, the uniquely manic Australian performer Jon Bennett reveals the Montreal airport encounter when Security discovered a number of unexpected items in his carry-on.

One was pepper spray. One was a copy of the showbiz manual 99 Ways To Tell A Story.

It takes an entire coming-of-age saga, retrieved from an archive of  past loves, age six onward, to explain the former. As for the latter, you’ll feel absolutely certain that the uniquely pellmell race-against-primal-chaos cadence and delivery, the nose for absurdity, the spiralling infrastructure of Bennett’s storytelling, won’t be catalogued anywhere in the official 99. Or the appendix, for that matter. It’s entirely off the grid.

The story begins with the breathless Bennett detained in a security chamber, under interrogation by a female version of Jay Z. He tells her the story, and she’s a hostile audience.

Soon, we’re immersed in the very funny, unexpectedly rueful and poignant account of the young Bennett’s gains and losses, near-misses, and fiascos in the fraught world of love and sex. 

“Close your eyes and imagine me losing my virginity,” he advises us at one point. Invitations like that aren’t a dime a dozen, even at the Fringe. Bennett thinks nothing of asking people “when was the first time you got sexually titilllated?”. And there’s a kind of offhand, shrugging confessional charisma about him, not to mention a line in rueful self-deprecation, that makes people cough up a memory as often as not. For a performer of such restless energy, his rapport with the audience is surprisingly instantaneous, unthreatening, and relaxed. 

Bennett, the reigning monarch of the Power Point, assembles photos of early girlfriends, family members, his first condoms, love letters dating from the time of his six-year-old self. And this amusingly non-airbrushed documentation — has Bennett ever thrown out a single snapshot? — lends a kind of home-made authenticity to proceedings. 

It’s Bennett’s unexpected aversion to public displays of affection that’s the axis of his story. It has roots in heartbreak. And it will be overcome in an unexpectedly exhilarating way. Bennett, a connoisseur of personal embarrassment, expertly negotiates a satisfying blend of exasperation, outrage, and emotional heat to savour, with us, the moment of triumph.

If you’re paralyzed by the F-bomb, this is not the show for you. Otherwise, you’ll laugh out loud, and wince a little. I did.

As seen at the Winnipeg Fringe.

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