NZ comedy’s rising cask-wine queen

Kiwi actor and comedian Johanna Cosgrove's one-woman show Aunty is a combination of Absolutely Fabulous and Outrageous Fortune. Impossible combination? Sasha Borissenko finds out.

Having seen Aunty three times now, I’ve always been in awe over Johanna Cosgrove’s ability to sink about 10 glasses of wine without vomiting on stage.

You can imagine my surprise - nay disappointment - to be told it’s all a ruse.

“Oh doll! The wine used to be real. Which was a BIG mistake. I’ll have a box of real cask wine, and the bottles are fake. I don’t think anyone could sink that amount of piss, let alone perform.”

Cosgrove plays a 40-something woman in a 26-year-old’s body, sporting a bathrobe, Dirty-Dog pint-sized sunglasses, and socks and jandals. Then there’s the cursing, the vaping, the broad New Zealand accent, and the sheer volume of yarn-spinning.

Half comedy, half theatre, the Absolutely Fabulous come Outrageous Fortune show took home Best Comedy last year, and it’s taken her to the Melbourne and Auckland Comedy Festivals, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, with Edinburgh Comedy Festival even on the cards.

It could be the nostalgia of the setting - a cheese hedgehog-style family barbecue - that makes the show so successful. But I’d argue it’s the unsettling nature of Aunty’s character. She spouts her love of Waitangi Day, yet weighs in on the “Tina Rangatiratanga” - yes that’s a reference to Tina Turner - flag debate. She’s pro-Labour, but fails to pronounce 'Whanganui' properly. She’s happy to rinse her pal Adrian for owning golliwogs, and will gladly rip out Aucklanders for being champagne socialists. Aunty, you see, is a complicated character to love.

“Her character is ridiculous. I mean she’s a middle New Zealand racist for sure. The thing I find challenging is that her views are not my views but they’re reflective of what’s happening in the Stuff comments section.

Aunty is based on a conglomeration of awesome women we all know, some true, some not, but it’s a loving tribute to middle New Zealand, to my mum and all her friends, and possibly me in the future,” she laughs.

Johanna Cosgrove was in love with her Miss Crabb jumpsuit that she wore for last year's Theatre Awards. Photo: Supplied

Cosgrove was living in the dark depths of Whangarei during the local body elections in 2016 when the idea of Aunty was born, she says.

“I felt frustrated at public opinion, where avocado on toast was a thing, and millennials were being described as snowflakes. I wanted to make a show about it. It couldn’t just be a hate rant, so I decided to do it in the context of my own family.

“We’ve all been at a family gathering where there’s a relative that you love, but that’s rude, offensive, drinks too much and ends up comatose at the end of the night. I wanted to present something that highlighted this generational divide.”

Aunty isn’t the only problematic character, Cosgrove says. “I mean, I may be highlighting issues in the show, but hey I’m also white, much like the majority of the comedy scene in New Zealand”.

“Ultimately I’m a white female millennial standing in front of an audience of 200 people where they listen to me speak for an hour. That’s the interesting thing about comedy. It’s predominantly white men standing up and saying ideas to a room. You have to question whether there’s a lack of voices being heard.”

For now, Cosgrove’s not sure whether she’s a comedian or an actor, or a combination of both.

Theatre has definitely had its low points. There’s the poverty, which is very real, she says. “I once did a kids' show in Wellington during my first year out of Toi Whakaare. For four weeks of work I got paid 150 bucks. One hundred and fifty bucks.”

Having to work hospitality on the side has had its perks, however. “I once got a $20 tip after I performed [the pop culture YouTube video] “Karen wants her $20”. I had learnt it word for word. It was worth it.”

And then there was the time she sat in her car in the Whangarei bush crying when she didn’t get an audition as a younger Cheryl West for Outrageous Fortune. “I mean, come on, I am Cheryl West.”

But because of Aunty, she was invited to host last year’s Theatre Awards. “I’ll never forget playing Chariots of Fire on the sax[aphone] to the Prime Minister. There were a bunch of Aunty[s] dressed up and they came down in a rocket ship while I was carried out in a Miss Crabb frock. I was throwing glitter in front of the motherf***ing Prime Minister. It was out of control.”

And Aunty audiences have been amazing. “Someone gave me a lean cuisine, a leek, I even got homemade jelly shots in a recycled curry container. How good is that?! Why stop now?!”

Aunty, for now, is the gift that keeps giving, she says. 

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