Little Andromeda, Level 1/134 Oxford Terrace, Central City, Christchurch

06/11/2020 - 07/11/2020

BATS Theatre, The Random Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

01/10/2019 - 05/10/2019

University of Otago Bookshop, 378 Great King St, Dunedin

22/03/2019 - 24/03/2019

BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

01/03/2019 - 05/03/2019

Dunedin Fringe 2019

NZ Fringe Festival 2019

Production Details

When was the moment you realised that you were the fool? 

[Abby Howells’] “…growing experience in stand-up and theatre performance has grown an assured and commanding presence that is reminiscent of Lucille Ball.” – Patrick Davies, Theatreview.

HarleQueen is a one-woman celebration of female fools. Written and performed by Abby Howells and directed by Anya Tate-Manning, ‘HarleQueen’ will be a night of theatre, fun and stories about cool ladies.

Using a variety of comedy styles HarleQueen will take the audience on a journey through the history of female comedians in this vaudevillian-style one woman show. Join the HarleQueen in celebrating the women who blazed the trail for females in comedy!

Abby Howells is an award winning comedian and writer. She was a founding member of female comedy collective Discharge and served as their Head Writer. She has written and performed in five shows for the collective, including the musical 28 Days: A Period Piece and Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die. Abby’s first one woman show, Glocknid: Dwarf Warrior, won her the award for Best Newcomer at the Wellington International Comedy Festival. 

Anya Tate-Manning was last seen at the Fringe with her own solo show My Best Dead Friend, for which she won the 2018 award for ‘Best in Fringe’.

NZ Fringe 2019
BATS Theatre: The Heyday Dome, Wellington
1 – 5 March 2019
Full Price $20
Concession Price $15
Group 6+ $14

*Access to The Heyday Dome is via stairs, so please contact the BATS Box Office at least 24 hours in advance if you have accessibility requirements so that appropriate arrangements can be made. Read more about accessibility at BATS. 

Dunedin Fringe 2019  
University of Otago Book Shop, 378 Great King St, Dunedin
Fri 22 – Sun 24 March 2019
Fri-Sat: 07:00pm
Sun: 4pm
$15.00 – $20.00
*Fees may apply

Pick of the Fringe (Wellington)

BATS Theatre, The Random Stage
1 – 5 October 2019
Full Price $20
Concession Price $15
Group 6+ $15


After multiple sell-out, award-winning seasons nationwide and abroad, HarleQueen is coming to Christchurch. Abby Howell’s vaudevillian-style one woman show is part confessional, part edu-tainment, and mostly an excuse to learn to juggle.

Last seen at the Adelaide Fringe where it won the prestigious Best Newcomer award, HarleQueen makes its triumphant post-lockdown returni. HarleQueen is a one-woman celebration of female fools. Written and performed by Abby Howells and directed by Anya Tate-Manning, ‘HarleQueen’ will be a night of theatre, fun and stories about cool ladies.

Little Andromeda
6 & 7 November 2020
Full Price $18
Concession Price $16

Theatre , Spoken word , Solo , Clown ,

1 hr

Celebrates transgressive female fools – and shocks us

Review by Erin Harrington 07th Nov 2020

In her one-woman show HarleQueen, comedian Abby Howells asks us to take female fools seriously.

Howells is an affable goofball who offers charming, self-deprecating storytelling that starts as a history lesson – visual aids and all – and veers into vaudeville schtick and personal narrative. She’s in a very cute harlequin checked dress, platform sandals and an Elizabethan ruff, a picture of femininity that is, in its own way, quite disarming. She’s incredibly sweet – more Sound of Music, we hear, than Chicago – butthis also becomes an important part of the show’s focus on the role of women in comedy.

The show, as directed by Anya Tate-Manning, is a beautiful celebration of a string of iconic female comics like Mabel Normand, Moms Mabley and ventriloquist Terri Rogers, whose challenges and successes and have been largely left out of the history books. It asks: where are all the female fools? And why don’t we know more about them? How have they made space for women who come after?

Throughout, there are skits, some very funny impressions, and well-placed sound and lighting cues that play with this heightened theatrical mode. I particularly love a speedy re-enactment of The Phantom of the Opera near the beginning, silent film intertitles and all, but I wish the props used here were picked up afterwards, as they crowd the small stage a little.

HarleQueen is also the story of Howells’ own love of making people laugh, and her history of performance. It’s a show for any musical theatre nerd whose bedroom dreams of fame get turned out into the world, and any person who gets knocked back but keeps getting up.

Howells deftly twists together the various strands of her story, such as her early obsession with and impersonations of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, her love of vaudeville, her obsession with performance and musicals (and serial killers). In some cases her enthusiasm outstrips her talent – as in a hilarious story about performing in Chess, or a handful of good / bad ‘tricks’ she shows us – but she loves it and she keeps plugging away, and she celebrates that love. It’s joyous.

She also asks us to reflect seriously on all the ways that funny, talented women might be pigeon-holed, discouraged or frozen out – who we, as individuals and collectively, make space for, and what we expect from comedy and comedians. These should be places where women make friends and love what they do, but there’s a quiet refrain about the problems when women’s worth, perceived, actual or internalised, comes from the support or implicit approval of men.

It’s all fun and games to start, but some of Howells’ later stories about her experiences as a female performer and an emerging comedian are shocking. You can hear, in the audience, that we recognise these stories of sabotage: women being punished for being funnier than their boyfriend or for being too sweet and not sexual enough. There’s the structural sexism, of being the only woman in a line-up of male comics, or hearing the laughter of a room full of punters who are complicit in your objectification.

There’s an emotional shift near the end that’s been seeded from the start, but when it comes it’s like a punch to the chest. I’m gutted and I wonder how many other funny, smart female performers like Howells have just given up because they’ve just been worn down by it all. What a loss. Howells is an experienced actor and comedian, with a list of achievements and credits as long as my arm, and it’s a real indictment of our artistic culture in Aotearoa New Zealand that she is not a headliner.

This show is as much about Howells showing us how to love our own inner weirdos and passions as it is about celebrating the history of transgressive female fools and the untapped scope of female comedy. By the end, we’re all in love with her too. This is to say that the show is excellent, Howells is funny as hell and the sort of voice we desperately need, and HarleQueen is one of my favourite shows this year.


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Howells of laughter

Review by Sonya Stewart 03rd Oct 2019

Each year BATS does a Pick of the Fringe season. As one of this year’s three shows, award winning writer/performer Abby Howells returns in HarleQueen.

A vaudevillian-style performance, there is plenty to entertain with songs and skits, tales and dance. Ventriloquist dummy and the worst/best trick I have ever seen? Sure! Silent movie style speed run of Phantom of the Opera? Why not! [more


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A prime example of how the personal is political and how particular experiences distil universal truths

Review by John Smythe 02nd Oct 2019

Theatreview starting tracking Abby Howells’ brilliant career in 2010 when she played the title role in Little Red Riding Hood at Dunedin’s late lamented Fortune Theatre. Then, over the next nine years, came Theatre du Grind Guignol – A Triple Feature, Impro Showdown, Polson Higgs Comedy Club 2012 (stand-up), What is This, Woman’s Hour?, Moose Murders (director), The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die (writer, co-performer), Taking off the Bird Suit (improv), Crossbow Cat (writer/co-performer – in the Short+Sweet Theatre 2014 finals, Auckland), Mary’s Christmas in Dunedin (co head-writer) and Wellington (also co-performer), 28 DAYS: A Period Piece (writer/co-performer), Definitely Not Witches (improv), Beards! Beards! Beards! (which toured extensively including to Edinburgh Fringe), Definitely Not the Baby Sitters Club (improv), Glocknid, Dwarf Warrior (writer, solo performer), Moose Murders (co-director, co-performer), Crossbow Cat (as part of Stages of Cheer 2015), Discharge Goes Back to School (head writer, producer, co-performer), Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die (in Auckland), My Dad’s Boy, Attila the Hun (writer), Fold, The Bald Soprano

You may note that Abby Howells’ stand-up career (which Theatreview has only touched on) last featured in 2012; that Glocknid, Dwarf Warrior has been her only solo show since then. This is what HarleQueen – returning to BATS in their brief Pick of the Fringe season – sets out to address. It may be described, in retrospect, as the survivor-cum-comeback story of Abby Howells: comedian.

Despite what the title and eye-catching poster imagery suggests, HarleQueen is not a virtuoso commedia performance. Howells stands before us as herself, albeit with a ruff collar (but without a mic), to tell us about her lifelong obsession with comedy, first referencing such stand-up icons as Jerry Seinfeld and Eddy Izzard. Plus there’s her musical theatre obsession and her amusingly heart-rending experiences as a teenager determined to make her fantasised stardom a reality in the cut-throat realms of school and community theatre productions.

Young Abby’s ruthless ambition and unstoppable self-confidence are flippantly recalled, and amid all the self-effacing, laugh-inducing comedy a foundation is surreptitiously being laid for the gut-punching flip to come later.

Christine from The Phantom of the Opera looms large, not to mention the Phantom himself who makes a guest appearance in a very funny pseudo-ventriloquism sequence. Here the seed is sown for second thoughts about male-female relationships, developed as various boyfriends are mentioned in relation to her forays into stand-up comedy.

Cross-referenced with her own story are thumbnail portraits of five female comedians from history with whom Howells feels an affinity: Jane Foole, the female jest to Queen Mary in the very cut-throat Tudor court; multi-skilled Mabel Norman, who showed Charlie Chaplin a thing or two and teamed up with Fatty Arbuckle, neither of which ended well; Canadian Beatrice Lille who found fame on both sides of the Atlantic; transsexual ventriloquist Terri Rogers whose dummy made it to a hall of fame; Moms Mabley, much feted in the Black community before getting her big break on the Smothers Brothers comedy Hour; Joan Rivers who shone despite Johnny Carson and his sycophants.

We’d like to think such misogyny was a thing of the past but we only have to witness the very recent toxic responses to Greta Thunberg (not a comedian or showbiz performer by any means) to realise how astonishingly threatened some men can be when women stand up in domains they regard as their own. She is experiencing publicly what Howells and her role-models have had to endure in relative private.

All these interwoven stories are cleverly crafted – with director Anya Tate-Manning and Bekky Boyce on lights and sound – to bring us to the event in Auckland that kneecapped Howells’ stand-up career seven years ago. We are left with so much to consider about why so many thought it was funny, the culture that allowed it to happen without challenge, the shame that was felt in the wrong places while the perpetrator and his sycophants remain oblivious …

HarleQueen is a prime example of how the personal is political and how particular experiences distil universal truths.  


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Our indisputable Queen of Fools

Review by Terry MacTavish 25th Mar 2019

I have seen all too many (mostly male) comics shamble their way through a pretty incoherent account of how they have ended up boring us with their life story – nothing remotely like this tight, polished show, impeccably directed by Anya Tate-Manning, that deftly employs all manner of charming technical devices to illustrate Abby Howells’ tale of life as an aspirational female fool.

Though fully aware of the difficulties for women embarking on stage business, I am still shocked to hear what Howells has had to endure, the more so as her stage persona is the most unthreatening imaginable. She is often, understandably, cast as a winsome child. It is even hard to write of her by her surname. Abby is tiny, blonde and incredibly cute, with a wide smile that never leaves her face even when she is speaking, grimacing or, amazingly, vomiting.

Yet she has met with rejection that almost crushed her, and sexism at its crudest. Just try being funny for a raucous drunken crowd screaming, “Get your clothes off!” or the only woman in a line-up of 12 men, ignored or hit-on in the Green Room.  Then cope with your boyfriend punishing you publically for getting more laughs than he did. 

No wonder her last attempt at a suitable stand-up character was designed for her protection – the armoured and scary Dwarf Warrior, Glocknid! I can’t imagine how that worked, but I am convinced she has got it just right this time – in HarleQueen Abby has found the perfect vehicle for honest, bold self-expression, in which ‘silliness’ becomes an art form. 

It intrigues me that just as her costume, demure diamond-patterned frock, neat Renaissance ruff and white sad-clown make-up, is a blend of Harlequin and Pierrot, so her persona is a mixture of the endearing naiveté of Pierrot and the deliberately mischievous antics of Harlequin.

[Spoiler alert…] Abby is always amusingly self-deprecating, trustfully sharing her insecurities and her mistakes, as she recounts her lifelong love of theatre, from her hysterical attempt at 9 years to impersonate Jerry Seinfeld for a talent show, to her teenage fixation with vapid heroines in musicals.  At least her failure to be cast as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (“Can you believe this shit?!” Curse that conniving Deputy Head Girl!) means we get to see her fabulous portrayal of the Cowardly Lion. But when, to her sorrow and humiliation, she was ‘too Sound of Music’ to win a role in Chicago, Abby humbly accepts ushering for the show. Aww. […ends]

Tiring of the struggle to be taken seriously on the Stand-Up circuit, Abby has sought comfort from the past, and discovered the fascinating histories of women who lived by their wit, who lived to make people laugh. These range from Jane Foole, who managed to survive the perilous life of court jester to no fewer than three Tudor Queens, through to quite recent Hollywood stars like brash Joan Rivers, bravely battling the male establishment. These women are rescued from history and given dignity even while their stories are woven into Abby’s own.

The stories of the valiant jesters of bygone days are interesting, even astonishing, in their own right, but are here brought to vivid and amusing life in Abby’s inimitable style, with ingenious technical assistance. Director Tate-Manning demonstrated her skill with framing a solo show in her own wonderful My Best Dead Friend, a hit at last year’s Arts Festival. Here in the genuinely deconstructed empty space above the UBS, she hangs portraits of the chosen heroines of comedy as a backdrop, and provides live musical accompaniment, which accompanied by elegant cue cards will support Abby’s hilarious silent film version of Phantom of the Opera.

[Spoiler…?] A puppet of the Phantom himself descends miraculously to provide Abby with a chance to display her skills of ventriloquism. Well, actually the skill lies in the way she deals with her lack of skill, the puppet chiding her for her inability to maintain a blank face. When its hook proves a little awkward to reattach, Abby simply eyeballs us and with perfect timing says firmly, “Seamless”. […ends] The audience adores her.

I have admired Abby Howells from first sight at Fringe years ago, throwing herself so generously into entertaining with Improvisation a mere handful of heckling punters, through her performances at the Fortune in Children’s Theatre and her work writing and acting for Discharge (remember Benedict Cumberbatch Must Die?), all the way to her delightful performance with internationally successful Beards! Beards! Beards! She has even been part of the successful pairing with director Tate-Manning before, in a sparkling version of Finnius Tippett’s My Dad’s Boy at the Fortune.

It is a shameful indictment of the NZ theatre scene that such an outstanding established actor should still be battling for respect she has totally earned. Might it at last be won by HarleQueen, a show as inspirational as it is hilarious?

When my smart, witty friend was a teenager many years ago in Invercargill, she told a funny story out on a date. Her sophisticated older boyfriend did not join the laughter, and following an ominous silence all the way home, he issued a brusque command: “Don’t you ever tell a joke when you are out with me again”.

Today, in the midst of an admiring audience rocking with sympathetic laughter for ‘our Abby’ sticking up for the female clowns of history so brilliantly, I am hopeful those days are history too.

Every moment of this journey has been a delight, as our indisputable Queen of Fools comes to the realisation that indeed she can make comedy “on my own, on my own terms”. But Abby Howells is not on her own, the funny ladies of the past are ranged behind her.  And the rapturous audience is with her – oh boy, are we with her!! 


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Laughter, joy and despair with socio-political depth

Review by Jorge Morales 02nd Mar 2019

HarleQueen threads stories and experiences through two major dimensions: the personal journey of Abby Howells and the history of salient women in the performing arts.

In a simple environment with a series of portraits of iconic women in the background, Abby takes us on an hour-long journey which intertwines her own experiences as a performer – through her early years and later on doing comedy – with the experiences of these iconic women.

The narrative varies from funny experiences to more personal and revealing details from Abby’s life or one of the portrayed performers. From start to finish we are engaged by these interesting insights.

The performance involves very minimal use of external resources such as lighting and sound.  Abby is placed at the centre, and her voice and narrative set the pace at all times. A few surprise elements break the straightforward flow, adding non-intrusive substance to the overall performance.

There is no shortage of laughs as we empathise with the experiences. We celebrate victories, big and small, and we pleasurably and willingly identify with equally genuine and sincere moments of despair, anger and frustration.  

This brings us to the underlying thread of women in the performing arts who, as Abby herself recognises, have literally and metaphorically set the stage for her. Reaching beyond simplistic recognition, Abby’s performance goes much deeper to dissect the role of women in the various performing arts. All humour aside, there is always an ongoing social and political discussion that underlies the joy and despair we are taken through.  


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