Meryl O'Rourke - Bad Mother...

Mother issues and the Holocaust

By Lee Levitt, August 15, 2011
Meryl O'Rourke

Meryl O'Rourke

There's long been a debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for comedy. Meryl O'Rourke crashes through it, with this raw, deeply personal, engaging and ultimately cathartic Edinburgh debut solo show that places her family's trauma in Germany shortly before the Second World War at the heart of her racy act.

The slightly built, feisty O'Rourke, wearing trainers, baggy jeans and a black top with a slanting zip, tells the audience matter-of-factly that she comes from "a pretty fucked-up family", lives in Brixton, has a strange following on Twitter including "seriously disturbed teenagers", and is "a married lady - somebody liked it, put a ring on it" - whose parents are dead.

Her mother, we learn, was an asylum-seeker, and that were it not for the Nazi guard who threw her mother on to the boat when she was deported, O'Rourke wouldn't be here now. So, while she is fully aware of what Hitler did, "as a relocation specialist" she can't fault him.

Mixed in with her unfolding family tale, which she warns the audience contains "dark stuff", is an unboundaried, ribald exploration of her sexuality, her thrill at becoming a wife, and a mum to a "lovely, princessy" daughter, and her boredom with it all, and personal shortcomings. "I'm barely at home, I don't enjoy playing with her, and don't clean," she says.

As she reveals more details about her family - her father, an Irish Catholic divorcee, died when she was seven, so she was raised by her "neurotic, clinging, obsessive" mother, whose own once-happy mother had become cold and unaffectionate - she hangs blown-up photos of them on a plastic clothes horse. Noting that Hitler had wanted to deport the Jews to Madagascar, she says: "I wish he had have done - it would have been a great holiday desination."

Then she tells how her grandfather, Elias Zanker, a cobbler from Dusseldorf, nicknamed "Adolf", had been sent a letter by the Nazi authorities telling him if he didn't change the nickname he would be investigated. And how one day the Nazis had come and started throwing her grandparents' belongings out of their apartment. One guard had picked up O'Rourke's mother, then aged three, and held her out of the window, saying that if her father, Elias, didn't agree to go to Dachau she would be dropped on to the pavement alongside the furniture. So he went to Dachau.

Her mother, and her mother's brother, Klaus, and their parents were deported to England in May 1939, thanks to some relatives in Surrey putting up the equivalent of £8,000 in surety. "Nobody quite cleans the floor like a woman mourning the loss of her family through genocide," O'Rourke says tartly of her grandma Herta, who became a housekeeper.

All of which, says O'Rourke, went some way to explaining why her "overbearing" mum had been a "nervous wreck", who had been so overprotective that she hadn't taken a London bus until she was 21.

Her mother had also become celebrity-obsessed, and the tirelessly jolly O'Rourke, throwing glitter on to the stage to effect a mood shift, recounts sundry tales of how, together, they had stalked minor celebrities.

Her mother's death is recounted in forensic detail, as are tales of family neurosis. "Every little mundane problem is the end of the world," explains O'Rourke, 40, after telling of an explosive family response to a lost hat in the Imperial War Museum.

For all O'Rourke's issues with her mother, their shared theatrical experiences have left her very much at home on the stage. After 10 years on the comedy circuit, and several previous appearances in Edinburgh, her devastatingly direct show stands out for its bold, boundary-breaking nature. The shocking casualness of her delivery is spot-on, and while there are some tasteless bits that's all part of the mix. Engrossing, but definitely not one for the prudish.

Underbelly, Belly Dancer, until Aug 28, not Aug 15

Last updated: 11:37am, August 23 2011