I’ve never seen a show at the zoo before, but that’s where Professor Wild Returns takes me for my first review of NZ Fringe 2023. Another entry in the incredible Austin Harrison Theatrical Universe, this solo show resurrects Harrison’s segment ‘Professor Wild’ from What Now in 2009 as a full-length show for adults, set amongst the climbs of the Wild Theatre at Wellington Zoo. Due to be performed at last year’s Fringe, but covancelled, we finally got to catch this work for one night only in Fringe 2023.

Dressed in an iteration of a safari suit and hat, Austin’s energy completely fills the large space, and we are utterly buoyed along with it as we’re drawn into a variety of segments. This version of Professor Wild isn’t here to talk about the four-legged animals we might expect, but rather – ourselves!

During songs with dubiously-APRA’d references, to an interview with Austin’s grandmother, who is sitting two seats along from mine, and a series of vignettes about a Regular Christchurch Primate trying to get his end away in a bar, the entire show takes on a somewhat surreal turn.

The songs in particular – featuring operator Campbell Wright as a living mic stand – really flavoured the piece with a kind of childrens’ television nostalgia. Yes, this was absolutely a work for adults, but I, and I’m sure others in the audience definitely felt like we were harking back to our What Now days at points.

The use of the digital screen at the back of the stage, a holdover from (presumably) the theatre’s main use as a lecture space, is lit up for most of the show with memes and video segments that allude to the work’s history – one that’s fourteen years in the making. You can’t often say that about a performer in their 20s.

A wander up the zoo path, the Wild Theatre is an odd concreted space, but works very well for a theatre show. With the power of Austin’s stage presence, nothing is lost, and myself and the audience find ourselves cheering frequently. One holdover from the location, however, is the screaming of animals about halfway through the show. “It’s just the lemurs having sex,” Austin says, “Just ignore it,” and so he continues, utterly undeterred despite the veracity of animal noise, which goes on for about five minutes.

Aside from the content of the work, which I did see as both hilarious and informative, what I really appreciated about Professor Wild Returns was the underlying thread of kindness that ran throughout the show – one that I know was fostered due to Austin’s affinity for crowd work.

Despite the narcissism, despite the sarcasm, despite all we’ve done wrong – the show’s final message was one that really stuck with me: tell your friends you love them, tell yourself that too (even if it’s hard), and give that love to the world around you. A moment of hope that particularly resonated with me considering the context of this week (extreme flooding in my hometown), and one I left the theatre truly feeling.

What a beautiful wistful opener to NZ Fringe 2023. Thank you for gifting us with this.