With her outsized mop of blonde curls and a distinctive line in rambling patter, Louise Reay is making quite a name for herself in the world of stand-up comedy – and this weekend finds her hard at work in a sweltering basement at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Armed with props that include a headless doll and a giant hand-sewn slice of pizza, her performance is more what you might call surreal than rib-tickling, with ‘jokes’ about such unlikely subjects as oppression and an unborn child.
There is also a female assistant wearing a moustache.
The estranged husband of Louise Reay is suing her over gags she makes about their failed relationship
But as most in the packed audience know all too well, Ms Reay, 32, would rather be dwelling on a very different theme – her former husband and the abuse she says she suffered at his hands. But she cannot.
And the reason she faces this extraordinary gag? In a case sending chills down the spines of comedians – and married couples – everywhere, estranged husband Thomas Reay, 33, is suing her, claiming she has mined their failed relationship for jokes and is demanding she stop.
He also wants £30,000 in damages for distress, invasion of privacy and damage to his reputation.
Indeed, if Ms Reay strays from the lawyer-approved script that she clutches in her hand, there is every danger she could owe a great deal more money, still.
In other words, her show at the Cabaret Voltaire club is less a comic turn than a new front in a remarkable year-long battle for free speech between two estranged spouses – one which has seen leading comedy stars, including David Baddiel, rally to her side. With Rowan Atkinson’s intervention on behalf of Boris Johnson and his controversial mockery of burkas, the subject could hardly be more timely.
Whatever Thomas Reay’s intentions, it is a case that is shaping up to be one of the most notable matrimonial disputes in British legal history.
But even if she has been ‘silenced’ at Cabaret Voltaire, The Mail on Sunday can now reveal that Ms Reay has shown no such restraint away from the stage.
She has ripped into Thomas Reay with a series of astonishing allegations – including claims that their relationship was dogged by cruelty, oppression and, on occasion, outright violence with, it is said, a metal chair used as a weapon against her.
New court documents suggest that, incredibly, she was so hungry at times that she was forced to beg him for food. They are allegations that Mr Reay vehemently denies.
‘I will never stop fighting for this,’ says a passionate Louise, speaking to this newspaper after a Fringe performance. ‘For a stand-up not to be able to say what they want – everything being controlled by lawyers – it’s extraordinary. Imagine if everyone’s jokes were controlled by lawyers. It’s bigger than [just] me.’
The comedian is being sued for £30,000 in damages for distress, invasion of privacy and damage to the reputation of her estranged husband
The only thing the couple can seem to agree on these days is that their marriage is at an end.
The Reays – he is an accountant, she is a television producer as well as a comedienne – had been together for a decade and married for four years when the relationship began to fracture in 2016.
In February 2017 they separated, but it was that August that the current dispute began when Louise took to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe to perform her one-woman show. Hard Mode was based on a conversation with Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei about censorship and authoritarianism, themes she underlined by placing sinister masked ‘police’ on the stage.
The stream-of-consciousness act included some unexpected personal features, too, including references to a nameless male presence in her own life, a man whom she appeared to liken to Chairman Mao.
This person, she told the audience, had thrown a chair at her. This same person controlled her finances, was abusive and questioned her purchase of toilet roll despite him earning more than £10,000 a month.
This anonymous figure might now be ‘free to wonder why your wife always has a headache’ in bed, she told the audience, who learnt that she ‘didn’t feel safe to have a baby’.
So it is hard, then, not to have some sympathy for Mr Reay, who says he had no idea about his wife’s new comedy material until his parents read reviews of her month-long stint at the Fringe. Alarmed, he commissioned a private investigator to record a performance. The results, he has claimed, left him reeling and humiliated.
His lawyers fired off a letter, following which Ms Reay says she gave her husband an undertaking she would not mention him in any further performances. Then, at the start of the year, he served legal papers claiming defamation, harassment and breach of privacy and data protection regulations.
Mr Reay demanded damages and legal costs and issued an injunction stopping Ms Reay from publishing any statements about him, actions branded by her as ‘oppressive’.
The case could certainly ruin her financially and she has resorted to a GoFundMe page to help raise money for her case.
‘As stand-up comedians, I believe it’s the very definition of our job to talk about our lives and social issues,’ she writes on the website. ‘This has become a free speech issue – and free speech means everything to me.’ Besides, she says, she had referred to her estranged husband only a couple of times, ‘maybe two minutes’ in total, in the course of her 50-minute show.
‘The main gist of those references was to tell the audience how sad I was that my marriage had broken down recently,’ she says. Now, the new legal papers, obtained by this newspaper, make it clear Ms Reay has embarked on a second and rather more outspoken line of defence. One which makes for explosive reading.
Thomas Reay claims Louise Reay has mined their failed relationship for jokes
Thomas Reay, she alleges, was an aggressive and controlling husband who denied her use of their joint bank account without his permission and permitted her to visit a bakery for ‘a treat’ just once a week.
She also says he would regularly belittle her, call her stupid and make her repeatedly apologise to him ‘up to ten times or more for having committed some trivial perceived offence against him’.
She claims he expected her to do ‘all of their housework, cleaning and cooking’, that he controlled her finances and that she would ‘spend her days alone in the apartment without sufficient, or any, food’. The papers say she would find herself ‘begging’ Mr Reay to buy food so she could eat.
Worse still are the allegations of violence. On occasion, according to the documents, she was afraid for her own safety, alleging that Mr Reay threw a metal chair towards where she was sitting. When she told him: ‘This isn’t OK. This isn’t safe,’ it is alleged he replied: ‘You made me do it.’
Another time, say the papers, he kicked her hard in the leg under the dinner table when she failed to stop talking to a friend about politics.
Is it a coincidence that her new – censored – show features a passing reference to the #metoo movement, although there is no claim the abuse was sexual?
A series of well-known comedians have come to her defence, with Josh Widdicombe, Sara Pascoe and Nish Kumar performing at a special comedy gala in the West End called ‘Ex Appeal’. They raised more than £10,000 for her.
Mr Baddiel, whose own performances have made liberal use of his father’s dementia and his mother’s sex life, has spoken out, saying it would be ‘a pity if the outcome of this case meant that comedians’ versions of their histories would have to be constantly checked by lawyers before they could be told on stage’.
Mr Reay, meanwhile, vigorously disputes what he calls his wife’s ‘upsetting and inflammatory’ accusations. In court papers of his own, he denies he was financially controlling, high-handed, violent, or that he caused his wife to fear for her personal safety.
While he admits he threw a chair, he says it landed ‘four metres’ from his wife, while the ‘kicking’ on the leg was a gentle nudge to the foot when he felt the debate was getting too heated.
He will argue that he had taken last year’s Edinburgh performance to mean that he had ‘domestically abused’ her and that, during their relationship, he had ‘engaged in a pattern of oppressive, tyrannical, violent, financially and emotionally controlling, bullying and cruel behaviour towards her’.
He believes the show has damaged his reputation and caused him to suffer ‘acute distress and hurt to his feelings’. He has his own explanation for the accusations she seemed to make in the show, which he describes an ‘act of revenge’ in response to his ‘effective termination’ of their relationship.
Last night, a lawyer acting for Mr Reay told The Mail on Sunday that the Hard Mode show ‘was not only a highly personal attack on him with no justification whatsoever, but it also constituted harassment, amongst other things.
‘No right to freedom of expression or artistic licence can extend to the publication of such seriously defamatory and false allegations. It is with deep regret that our client has had to pursue legal action in order to protect himself’.
Ms Reay, of course, takes a different view.
As the audience filed out of Cabaret Voltaire, an image of a park bench appeared on a screen. On its plaque were the words, ‘Louise Reay was sane and told the truth.’
That, of course, will be for the courts to decide – and there are major issues at stake.
But whoever ultimately prevails, even her most committed fans will surely agree that this most poisonous of public rows is no laughing matter.