For most people, stalking is something that only happens to female celebrities. For Richard Gadd, it became a terrifying part of his everyday life, and the basis for his one-man play Baby Reindeer, which, after premiering at Edinburgh Fringe to critical acclaim, has now arrived at the Bush Theatre in London.
‘The last show I did at Fringe, Monkey See Monkey Do, won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2016,’ says Gadd. ‘So I felt a lot of pressure coming back to the festival with a theatre piece because I needed to live up to the expectation of the previous show in a totally new genre.’
One thing common to both pieces is their deeply personal subjects, and explorations of masculinity today. In the way that Monkey See Monkey Do helped him deal with the sexual abuse he suffered as a young man through comedy, Baby Reindeer is an emotionally charged, chilling exploration of his harassment by a woman he once served tea to at work – a decision that resulted in 41,070 emails from her, as well as voicemails, letters and countless other unwanted contacts (many of which are played, relayed or displayed during the show).
What stops the play turning into a victim narrative is Gadd’s honest acceptance of the role he played in encouraging his stalker. As an audience member, it’s a tough watch. You know the result and see the build-up to it in real time as Gadd makes bad decision after bad decision. Does it not cost Gadd to relive these traumatic events constantly on stage?
‘I still feel so much shame and guilt,’ he says, ‘but the catharsis you feel after sharing your experience dwarfs any magnitude of what you’re dealing with.’
‘Gender doesn’t really matter if someone’s got a knife in their hand’
However, if this all sounds like Gadd is at peace with himself and the situation, then think again. Emotions start intense and remain so over the full 65 minutes of his powerhouse of a performance in Baby Reindeer (side note: the title of the play is the unwelcome nickname his stalker gave him). Most notable is the anger and outrage he still feels at his treatment by the police.
‘The problem with harassment is that police need a threat, so then you sit around obsessing with trying to find danger [in the stalker’s correspondence]. The first time I went to the police, I talked about the abundance of emails that I was getting from her and they said, “it’s not a crime to email someone”. So I could decide to email you to the extent it makes you feel unsafe, but the law can’t help. That was deeply stressful.’
However, it isn’t just the system of reporting harassment Gadd wants his audience to think about, it’s also the gendered perception of it.
‘I felt embarrassed sometimes dealing with the police, embarrassed to be telling them all this. They didn’t explicitly say it, but I do feel I wasn’t seen as a priority because I was a man,’ says Gadd. ‘I just kept thinking that gender doesn’t really matter if someone’s got a knife in their hand. I wonder how many men have been pushed to the point of potentially being stabbed because of that.’
Until 9 November, 7 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 8LJ, bushtheatre.co.uk