Review: Ruby Wax: Sane New World

A well poised and witty discussion of mental illness offers up a healthy dose of catharsis for both audience and comic. reviews


Venue: Grand Opera House, York

Depression and mental health don’t sound like the kind of issues you expect a comedian to address, but Ruby Wax is no ordinary comic. After suffering from depression, Wax decided to investigate the causes of mental health issues and gained a Master’s degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy at Oxford University; the results of which are discussed in her new show, Sane New World. It’s part stand-up, part science lecture and part group therapy.

Opening with a very informal start, Wax walked onto stage while the house lights were still up and chatted freely with the audience as we waited for the latecomers. With a cup of coffee in one hand, she waited for the “Please turn off your mobile phone” announcement to take a photograph of herself with the audience. The carefree beginning set the tone for the evening.

The first act was tightly structured around a systematic discussion of how the stresses of the modern world is responsible for our increasing societal anxiety. Wax explained that the media, internet and mobile phones mean that we’re aware of horrific events across the world, when our bodies are actually programmed to only focus on incidents that only directly affect us. Our brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat and one that we hear happening thousands of miles away, so produces the same hormones, thus making us increasingly stressed. The analogy used to exemplify this was that if the woman next door is having sex with the man next door to her, then we need to know. If it’s in the next street, we don’t; the cumulative effect of all this information is, Wax explained, what causes our modern condition.

The show was neatly illustrated by a slideshow-style animation of the scientific processes that occur when our brains attempt to process so much information. Some of the points raised were rather dubious, such as the suggestion that we were better off as peasants because we felt less entitled, but, regardless of the outcomes, you could see from where she was coming. The more serious aspects of the show were neatly punctuated by Wax’s acerbic wit and some humorous diversions. In particular, her discussion on how depression forced her to accept any job regardless of its stature (meaning that as a result she ended up as a contestant on Celebrity Shark Bait) was hilarious and added important levity to the show.

The only downside to the show was the Q&A style final half, as some of the audience members took the opportunity to say more about themselves, rather than ask a straightforward question. Fortunately, Wax handled any potentially awkward situation with ease, answering every question with the sensitivity and humour that the show required.

There are few shows as simultaneously witty and informative as Sane New World. Wax is open about her condition, but also enlightening on issues that affect us all. Her point that everyone has the same insecurities utilised a series of screens that highlighted various commonplace anxieties to great effect. The production had the potential to be trite or rather awkward, especially for those of the English ‘stiff upper lip’ persuasion, but was grounded by her honesty and humour. It was a funny, moving and inspiring show that entertained the whole audience. A real surprise of a show.

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