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Tom Ballard: stand-up with a barbed edge

Adelaide Fringe

Tom Ballard will take aim at Australia's treatment of refugees and "f***ed-up immigration history" in an Adelaide Fringe comedy show he acknowledges has some distinctly unfunny moments.

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“It’s comedy first and foremost but it is also a theatre piece,” the 2016 Helpmann Award-winning comedian tells InDaily of Boundless Plains to Share.

“There are some moments where there are no laughs at all … the show ends on a real sadness and rage, and that’s real for me.”

The fast-paced 70-minute performance, directed by Tripod’s Scott Edgar, takes its title from a line in the Australian national anthem and sees Ballard guide audiences on a whirlwind tour of the country’s immigration history, “from 72,000 years ago to today”.

“I try to do a breakdown of all the arguments used to justify our offshore detention regime and why we should be worried by these asylum seekers, with a whole lot of jokes thrown in there – at my expense, at [Minister for Immigration and Border Protection] Peter Dutton’s expense, at White Australia’s expense …”

The fact that he describes Boundless Plains to Share as a “comedy lecture” gives audiences an idea what to expect (you can get a taste on this video clip, but be warned that strong language and content may offend).

Amid the jokes and amusing anecdotes – including his recounting of the story about a large shipment of “Freedom Foods” muesli bars being turned away from the Manus Island detention centre because the brand was considered inappropriate for locked-up asylum seekers – Ballard also shares the experiences of four refugees he has spoken to who came to Australia by boat.

They include a person still detained on Manus Island, another at the Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne, someone who was detained as a child on Nauru and has since been resettled, and a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in the 1970s.

Ballard says some of the stories he heard were heartbreaking: “Researching the show, I cried quite a bit.”

A number of reviewers covering the Melbourne International Comedy Festival performance of Boundless Plains to Share described it as both hilarious and powerful, although one critic suggested it might benefit from “less shouting”. But Ballard has strong views about immigration and the treatment of refugees – both in Australia and overseas – and certainly isn’t afraid of being provocative.

He says he wants to further understanding of why refugees take desperate measures to reach our shores, and to encourage audiences to consider that there are alternatives to policies such as turning back the boats and offshore detention.

“I like the idea of grabbing the audience by the shoulders and saying, ‘This is f***ed up! This is not normal. It doesn’t have to be this way’.

“I think we’ve been sold this terrible choice, where if we don’t support offshore detention, we support children drowning at sea.”

In between performances of Boundless Plains to Share at Tandanya Theatre during Adelaide Fringe, Ballard will present his latest show, Problematic, in the Garden of Unearthly Delights.

It is inspired by what he describes as the current discourse around political correctness and will see him tackle “everything from outrage culture to race relations”.

Audiences can also expect some material from his experiences on the SBS reality show First Contact, in which he joined five other high-profile Australians who were given first-hand experience of Aboriginal communities.

“You can’t spend a month with David Oldfield and not get some jokes out of it,” Ballard laughs.

Tom Ballard will present Boundless Plains to Share at Tandanya Theatre on February 18, 19, 25 and 26, and Problematic in the Garden of Unearthly Delights from February 17-26.

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