Six years on from his last stand-up tour, Rhod Gilbert is back to talk honestly about his life – at last.

Words Stephen Armstrong     

Rhod Gilbert knows how to command a stage. Fringe regulars were blown away by the power and majesty of his outrage in 2009’s Award-winning Mince Pie as well as his masterful audience work – his sell out tours The Cat That Looked Like Nicholas Lyndhurst and The Man with the Flaming Battenberg Tattoo were titles picked by the audience before he’d written a word. Others will have seen him hosting Never Mind the Buzzcocks, acing Live at the Apollo, riffing on 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and generally seeming like an upbeat, positive force-of-nature comedian. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“I’m so shy I think I went to two out of sixty lectures in my first year at Exeter University,” he recalls. “You know they say when you get to university, ‘Just knock on the guy next door, the person next door in the halls of residence.’  I couldn’t even do that. I still probably couldn’t do it to this day. So I just sat in my room. In the end, the university had to intervene and move me to a different hall of residence and put me in the care of this bloke who would be my friend and mentor.”

So, obviously, he chose stand-up comedy as a career – nothing could be easier for a shy person than standing on stage and making a room of strangers laugh, right?

“It wasn’t a career choice,” he explains. “I had no desire to be a comedian. I wanted to be a lorry driver. But I was encouraged to do comedy for eight years by a girlfriend who just wouldn’t let it ride and for eight years I insisted, “No. Leave me alone. You’re stressing me out just talking about it.” So I ended up doing this to keep her
off my back and I’m very glad I did. And in fact, the comedy has really helped the shyness.
That and the slow passing of the years as we age and die.”

Perhaps his shyness is down
to coming from Carmarthen,
a provincial market town in Wales with a population of 15,000.
When he finally caved and started doing stand-up, stories from Carmarthen popped up in his fictional Welsh village of Llanbobl, around which he wove his largely fictional early shows. With Mince Pie, he seemed to have shaken off his caution and his fiction and learned how to speak from the heart – raging against the petty stupidity of consumer culture. He looks a little guilty.

“I don’t think there was anything true, apart from the mince pie itself,” he gives a wry grin. “Largely everything was fantasy. The Flaming Battenberg Tattoo was all about a make-or-break holiday when I was planning on proposing to my girlfriend. None of it happened. I can remember Barry Castagnola giving me a right old ticking off once because he said he felt cheated. But recently, that’s changed – I’ve learned how to talk honestly on stage about my life. Largely.”

His new show is the result. The Book of John is about the six difficult years he’s had since he last toured his stand-up. His mother died after being struck by Alzheimer’s,
his father had a heart attack, he had a mini-stroke himself while sitting on the toilet, and he’s facing up to the fact he might be infertile. 

“I hadn’t written for years, I don’t know why – I did telly and some charity gigs but no new material,” he explains. “Everything’s so visceral and angry these days. It just seemed like fiddling while Rome burns to be talking about duvets while all around us the world got angrier and more and more divided, so I started writing about more serious things.

“I actually set off to write a show about Brexit. Back in 2017
there was a phrase that was used all the time: ‘more that unites us than divides us.’ You don’t hear anyone saying that any more.
I tried to write a show around that idea and I wanted to talk about my mum’s death and my dad’s heart attack and my stroke and the trying for kids, all with the overall theme that there’s more that unites than divides us.”

At the heart of the show is John, a driver who picks him up from TV appearances and big gigs and they have rambling, often outlandish conversations on the journey home. John’s dumb logic and preposterous notions on everything from George Michael to the Icelandic fishing industry weave throughout the show, providing a rich comic counterpoint to Gilbert’s heart-rending confessions. Gradually, the two men start seeing eye to eye and they even end up liking each other.

“John was a bit of a godsend,” Gilbert admits. “I was trying to do stuff about my mum’s Alzheimer’s and I just couldn’t find a way to make it funny.  It’s actually only really John I’d say all these things to and his answers really helped.”

He’s been touring the show tentatively and the response has astonished him. “In the past all I’ve ever had people say is, “I find you funny” or, “I don’t find you funny,”” he explains with a grin. “That’s all the feedback. Whereas now I’m getting bombarded with stuff. I’m getting a lot of comments about strokes, Alzheimer’s, trying for kids, IVF – it’s really touched and affected people, much more than the comedy,” he laughs. “But I’m happy about that.
It’s why I’m hoping that Brexit will settle down, because – which is my point – even if we disagree about everything, there are bigger things like health and life and death where we can empathise.
It’s just about being kind to one another.”

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