Nov 20, 2015

Review: ‘Comma Sutra’

Been missing the cunning, linguistic comedy in your life? Elisabeth Griffiths reviews a local offering that will hit the spot.

In Comma Sutra, proud language nerd Louisa Fitzhardinge (that’s with a silent ‘e’, she’ll have you know) gets multilingual, multi-instrumental, and mellifluous. Having a background as a childhood bookworm, and growing up to be the holder of Bachelors of Arts in French and German as well as theatre, Fitzhardinge has enough stage presence and more than enough vocabulary to present a show with sharp timing and a range of material that runs the emotional gamut.


The show is an anecdotal exploration of what it means to care deeply about words, to find joy in languages, and what happens when most people just don’t understand this way of looking at the world. It’s a cabaret with less than the usual amount of cheesiness, instead mixing things up with amusing visual examples of punctuation gone wrong, self-aware white-girl rapping, meta-jokes, and admissions of the mistakes we make when we have more book-smarts than street-smarts. There are puns, of course, and some silly language jokes, but you’ll also learn about word formations in German and at least one Auslan word.

Given that it is a cabaret, it does come with the occupational attendance hazard of audience participation, but if you get involved, you might be lucky enough to have a spontaneous limerick made about you. Otherwise you’ll just have fun – if you don’t, by the looks of the audience, you’d be the only one. In her original songs, there are echoes of Tim Minchin’s self-aware and nerdy snarky style and Eddie Izzard’s quick code-switching, as Fitzhardinge flits between languages, sometimes even juggling two at a time. To do it justice here would spoil the surprise, so you will have to attend to truly appreciate it. If you thought you’d heard (and got sick of) every possible cover of ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, Fitzhardinge will prove you wrong and surprise you with how language attrition can be incorporated into lyrics. The highlight, however, was the original ‘Little Bookworm’, which was sad, beautiful, heartfelt, humorous, and with enough length to tell a story.

There was one somewhat disappointing section of the show, however: a segment on uptalk. It’s something of an easy target – and a linguistic feature that’s long been debated and debunked. It reveals that while Comma Sutra is all about celebrating language being used well, the nature of language means that it is easy to get caught up in criticising the users of different types of language while we have a laugh. While the show is a celebration of a love of words, there are aspects of it which are more prescriptivist than descriptivist. Nevertheless, it rhymes, it’s fun, and I think all language lovers – even the most descriptivist – understand what it is like when it feels like other people are “misusing” or “degrading” our precious, precious language.

It’s a show for language learners and lovers, but definitely not for kids or those shy about the naughtier words in our magnificent, muddled up languages. It’s called ‘Comma Sutra’ for a reason, after all, and after the show you can get a copy of the rather rude guide to grammar from Fitzhardinge herself.

Comma Sutra is playing until this Sunday the 22nd of November at the Butterfly Club, Melbourne. Tickets can be bought online here

Elisabeth Griffiths is an English/EAL teacher and attended as a guest of the show, but enjoyed it enough to be pestering friends into seeing it.


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