Cathy Jones in Stranger to Hard Work
Four and a half stars
Cathy Jones is late to her own solo show.
At least that’s the comedy conceit at the top of Stranger to Hard Work, Jones’ solo show, that’s all sorts of adjectives – brilliant, manic, smart, sad – but just come ready to laugh your ass off, because it’s the funniest show of the year. (OK, I know, it’s only January.)
I started laughing right away, as a fictional stage manager searches for Cathy while playing peekaboo and showing us her black leather pants, having fun with the essential awkwardness that a solo show forces upon a performer and the audience: at solo shows, you have to park your disbelief in your backpack for an hour, sit back, and embrace the fact that programming solo shows (which I adore) are how theatre companies make all the bills add up at the end of the year.
And soon enough, Jones has peeled off her dowdy dress to reveal a 60-year-old woman in black leather pants, a torn-at-the-shoulder Kurt Cobain t-shirt – and bare feet. She looks like a combination of an aging Nirvana groupie and Newfoundland granny – and that’s when she starts to tell her marvelous stories.
The stories are kind of a combination of both those perspectives, too. There are stories about the sex life – or lack of one – of a single, 60-year-old woman who’s just as horny as she ever was, but has hit the stage of life where everyone around her just wishes she would keep it to herself.
There are stories about Jones traveling home to Newfoundland, the shire for Canadian comedy, where she tries and fails, to fit in with childhood friends who stayed, while she left to become a Canadian television icon, first on Codco and then, for 24 years, on This Hour has 22 Minutes.
You might think, oh, right, nothin but a big brag – and you would be wrong!
Jones might have been the funniest person in the country for the past 35 years, but when she takes us behind the scenes into her real life, we find a financial illiterate who would just rather not think about how to fund her retirement, a blocked writer with a trail of publishing companies begging her to write a book that she can’t begin to complete, an empty nesting divorced mother of two grown children who can’t quite put her finger on who she should be now that she’s 60.
There’s no behind-the-scenes showbiz stuff, giving us a glimpse of her magnificent celebrity lifestyle, her New Year’s eve vacations at the Aga Khan’s Caribbean lair, hair or culinary tips, vegan recipes, or finger wags about the tar sands.
The only glimpses of her celebrity lifestyle we get are of an alienated islander who went away, hit it big, and now can’t quite fit in when her childhood pals humblebrag about how they got their brothers to build them glorious additions to their beautiful homes for pennies!
Eventually, Jones envisions growing into the old lady she imagines she might become as she transforms into Mrs. Enid, her beloved elderly wisecracking ranter from This Hour has 22 Minutes.
Enid reports to us from the late stages of life, when your only human touch comes from the young, handsome staff members of the old folks home you’ve been shipped to in order to live out your final years.
We live in a pop culture world where most women in their fifties and sixties – and seventies, eighties and nineties – just disappear unless they pop up to dispense life wisdom to the young, attractive people whose problems matter so much more to the folks who create popular culture.
What that means is we don’t get stories like the ones Jones tells in Stranger to Hard Work, which are as much about being all filled up with a life well lived as they are about what’s missing – all of it delivered with an impeccable ability to make herself the butt of every joke.
Happily – for High Performance Rodeo audiences – Jones still has plenty of problems as she hits her sixties, and listening to her tell funny stories about them is about the best way imaginable to forget it’s January in Western Canada.
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Stephen Hunt is the 2017 High Performance Rodeo Writer-in-Residence