“I am f---ing terrified,” admits Nish Kumar. “I am not an actor or a woman.” He isn’t, however he is a critically acclaimed stand-up comedian whose stock is on the rise (early whispers about the Fosters Comedy Award have featured his name) and who’ll likely be a household name before long. Tonight, however, Kumar is out of his comfort zone. A stagehand has just handed him a script, written by an anonymous female playwright, which he has to perform, cold, having never clapped eyes on it before.
To make matters even more uncomfortable for Kumar, the script is a first-person, highly confessional, no-holds-barred tour through the writer’s sex life (there’s a reason it’s anonymous), from her awakening aged 12, brought on by a repulsive scuba diving instructor, to a vivid, often hilarious run-through of various boyfriends and lovers.
We are party to the most intimate thoughts about masturbation, sexual fantasies and orgasms. Some of it is downright unsettling and Kumar’s eyes occasionally bulge as he scans down the page to see what he has to say next.
The casting – each time it will be performed by a different, male comedian – might feel gimmicky if it were not for the fact that it really works. Hearing a distinctly female narrative and point-of-view in Kumar’s mouth is amusing at first, but it gradually begins to take on a real weight. Robbed of any sense of naturalism, or any preconceptions that might come along with knowing the identity of the writer, the message takes centre stage and comes across crystal clear.
Manwatching is a co-production between the Royal Court and Paines Plough, and as part of the latter’s Earlier/Later programme, is a work-in-progress. However, even at this early stage the script has a thrilling urgency (you get a sense that for the writer the process was in quite cathartic).
There’s real anger in there too. Anger at how women’s voices are marginalised, anger at how male sexual experience is celebrated, but that of a woman is seen as shameful, anger at herself for being complicit in it all.
If there’s one quibble it’s that, as powerful and refreshing it is to listen to, the biographical nature of the material means that we have little actual drama to hold on to. That said, Kumar’s comic timing is excellent and the revelations, often jaw-dropping, come in waves.
There are only four more performances left at this year’s festival (with future performers including Marcus Brigstocke and Nick Helm) but this is a rare voice – despite the male body delivering it – that deserves to be heard.
At Summerhall. 14, 15, 19 & 21 Aug, 10.30pm. Tickets: 0131 560 1581, festival15.summerhall.co.uk