Louise Reay, Edinburgh Fringe: comedy in Chinese, for people who don't speak Chinese

The British documentary-maker turned clown performs her entire show in a language most of her audience does not understand

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The Independent Culture

Louise Reay can legitimately claim to be unique at the Edinburgh Fringe. She is the only comedian performing her hour-long show in Chinese, to almost exclusively non Chinese-speaking audiences.

Reay, 29, graduated in Modern and Classic Chinese from the University of London in 2008 and worked in Beijing for a couple of years after that. She now works in television, making and subtitling documentaries; most recently she went to Beijing to source the teachers for BBC2's current series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School.

“Making documentaries, you're always watching people and you realise that someone can just raise their eyebrow and it says so much,” says Reay, who begins her show, It's Only Words, by holding up a sign that declares “Only 7% of communication is verbal.”

“Similarly you realise how people can be isolated by language. I wanted to explore that. I realised that it would be possible to make a show that was entirely in Chinese, that non Chinese-speakers could fully understand.”

The show is sponsored by - who else? - the Chinese government. “I asked the question and they said yes. I've been tremendously lucky,” says Reay. They made no stipulations about the show but sent 20 government officials to check it out on its opening day. “I was afraid they'd see it and ask for their money back. They're not the most relaxed when it comes to culture and it's quite alternative.”

It is indeed - an hour of clowning, mime and audience participation in which, among other things, an adult male is dressed up like a baby and bottle-fed, Reay re-enacts Eastenders in Chinese and audience members are corralled into dancing, drinking and acting as a midwife.

Reay started out doing stand-up in her late teens but only rediscovered comedy three years ago. Last year, she enrolled on Doctor Brown's clowning course, and “it completely changed my life,” she says. “I'm much better at clowning. It's much more immediate, it's all about improvising and being present in the room.”

Do people ever give up on the show when they realise that it is 60 minutes in a language they have no hope of understanding? “Sometimes people walk out - they can't cope with it, or they don't like how interactive it is,” says Reay. “And some people watch the whole show and think I'm speaking fake Chinese. That's the hardest thing, to make people believe that it's real.”

Louise Reay: It's Only Words, Just The Tonic @ The Community Project, Edinburgh, to 30 August (www.edfringe.com)

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