Modern dating isn't easy. Sure, first dates can be exciting, fascinating and full of possibilities. Or, you know, you can feel like you’re an unwitting participant in some dystopian reality TV show. Oh wait, that’s Love Island.
Anyway, we all know someone who’s married the love of their life – the one they met on their first-ever Tinder date – but for every success story there are a hundred people who feel exhausted and deluded by the dating scene. Let’s face it, it can be fucking depressing.
So with that in mind, you’d think anyone who’s been on 500 dates would be despairing about the state of humanity. Rebecca Northan – the woman behind live comedy show Blind Date, which is currently making its Edinburgh Fringe debut – has done just that. And, it turns out, she doesn’t think humans are that bad after all.
In the show Rebecca goes on an impromptu date with a random audience member. This isn’t some slapstick speed dating scenario – what makes the show so intriguing is that the onstage date lasts exactly 90 minutes with Rebecca and her chosen date (who is always male – Rebecca is straight and feels that this is the only way to create something authentic, though a queer version of the show has been licenced in Norway).
“The reason that those [dating] TV shows are popular and the reason my version is so good, is that it's so relatable,” explains Rebecca. “We all know what it feels like to meet a stranger and think ‘I hope this goes well’ – and that can be a job interview or a date or anything.”
But how many of us would be willing to date in front of a live audience, ignoring the type of person who might sign up for to be ritually uncoupled and coupled on Love Island? (Incidentally, the Canadian comedian hasn’t heard of Britain’s favourite summer entertainment, though she Googles it during our interview and tells me “it looks like hell.”) The Blind Date team have a rule that they never get someone on stage who is too eager – she wants someone who is going to be honest and real, not someone who’s looking for their own slice of stardom.
And so the cast of alumni Rebecca's acquired have been full of surprises – in Edinburgh alone she’s met prison guards, nuclear scientists, teachers and arborists. The thing that most people have in common before the show is thinking they’re not very interesting. “It always breaks my heart,” says Rebecca. “But the fact that that you’re coming up on stage and you’re willing to, is very interesting. We will never tire of watching two human beings trying to connect.”
This brilliantly simple format has kept Rebecca and her team booked up for a decade – and what a decade it’s been. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have conversations about consent on stage, whereas now we’re on the front end of the wedge, asking guys how they handle the consent conversation.”
How they respond to that comes down to age, says Rebecca. “I’ve had guys in their mid-sixties who are like ‘I don’t know, you tell me, we didn’t do that’ and they get stressed about it. But then guys in their 30s are chilled out about it, they’re open. We get to have these human moments.”
There was also much more snogging when Blind Date began. “In the first two or three years that I was doing the show, I got so much tongue from audience members. We ended up making out, full-on making out – but that has gone away. Unless the guy is over 60, then sometimes they still go there.”
Occasionally, participants elicit negative reactions from the audience. Rebecca just sees this as another chance to forge a deeper connection with the man sitting opposite her. “We had a 50-year old last week and at one point in the show he said ‘well, you know, sometimes women take the feminist thing too far.’"
Naturally, there was a sharp intake of breath from the female members of the audience. But in the 90-minute show, Northan has an opportunity to dig deeper. “I thought, I don’t know what he means by that. So I asked some more questions and he talked about how he went to an all-boys school growing up, where they used to get caned, and you couldn’t show any weakness, and then his wife left him to be with a woman.
“He carried on to tell me he had so much respect for his wife for sitting him down and telling him she wanted to be with a woman. There’s a whole bunch of that guy’s life experience which has led him to say things like that. And we got to understand him more, and not to just go, 'you must be some kind of an asshole'.”
Offstage, Rebecca has never been on a blind date. Yet her time spent dating strangers in front of live audiences has given her a reputation as something of an expert. “I’ll get asked to write blog posts, or top ten tips for single people – that’s not really what this is.
“But what it has taught me is to have a lot of compassion for straight guys. Because I can see in them, there’s pressure – we saw that most when we did the show in the US – men who are clearly nervous because they’re on stage, but culturally they’re not supposed to admit that. So they try and look like they are totally relaxed when they’re not.
“The big thing really that has just filled my heart is meeting this crop of young men in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, who are totally ready to have a consent conversation – and they’re not nervous about it -–we’ve watched that shift in real time. It's made me really love men, and have more compassion and empathy for them, truly.”
So there you have it. Despite what you may think, the world of heterosexual dating is getting better.