Minor spoilers: This review includes discussion of some of the content of Moni Zhang's show 1990 Child of Wuhan: Trauma, Love, Diarrhoea.

BEFORE Moni Zhang’s show really begins she asks the audience to enter a contract. Pay attention, no heckling, phones off. One side of the deal is standard enough. In return, Zhang promises an emotional rollercoaster, a show full of highs and lows, tears and smut. Her goal, Zhang says, is to leave the audience wet from their faces to their trousers. Unfortunately, the now German-based comic never quite holds up her end of the deal.

There is no doubt that Zhang’s show – 1990 Child from Wuhan: Trauma, Love, Diarrhoea – has cultural value. She does an admirable job of getting across the reality of life in the Chinese city (below), which in 2020 went from relative obscurity to a household name for all the wrong reasons. Through the medium of a dry breakfast noodle (re gan mian), Zhang’s Wuhan is introduced and endeared to the audience even as it is presented as a place to flee, a place of pain.

The National: The closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China

Family and expectations are also key themes. Zhang’s struggle with accepting that she can neither love nor hate a mother who sacrificed so much for her, but was also a remorseless bully, is smartly imparted to the audience through a series of set scenes from her life. Being attacked at primary school. Her 13th birthday. Studying while her mum ran a sweatshop. Getting the chance to learn at a European university. The moments are memorable, but Zhang always seems more comfortable telling stories than telling jokes, and the result is a show that is light on laughs.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the strained moments where she attempts to engage with the audience. The intimate venue – as with so many stand-up shows at the Fringe – provides bountiful opportunities for this type of comedy, and so many performers across the city do it well. But while Zhang tries to engage, it’s always with pre-prepared lines. Accusing audience members of being perverts could be hilarious done in the right way, with spontaneity and wit. But as Zhang delivers the lines, they feel laboured to the point of being awkward.

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The same air of awkwardness hung over the first part of the show, which really was the only stretch where Zhang consistently tried to tell any jokes. An early opener was something about foreigners thinking all Chinese people are given pandas. The joke seemed rooted in stereotypes of stereotypes rather than smart observations, and did not land at all. Zhang’s best jokes came at the expense of the Chinese government. But the comedy was far from fearless. Instead, it was caveated again and again.

Ultimately, Zhang is a storyteller. If the promotional materials for the show made that more clear, perhaps the audience would have a better idea of what to expect and be more in sync with her performance as a result.

Moni Zhang is performing 1990 Child from Wuhan: Trauma, Love, Diarrhoea at the attic in The Mash House (Fringe venue 288) at 16:00 every day until August 27, except 14 and 21.

She is presenting a second show, called Asian Daddy, Dead!, at The Counting House attic (Fringe venue 170) at 19:30 every day until August 27, except 14 and 21.