Felix Dexter - Comedy shuffle
This article is from 2008.
At the RSC he pretended to be the sea and in Edinburgh he sparred with Christian Slater. Leaving the theatre behind for now, Felix Dexter tells Julian Hall that he’s happy again with his first love.
It’s the first time in over a decade that Felix Dexter has played a solo Fringe show. In the interim years comedy fans may have seen his stint as Saffy’s boyfriend in Absolutely Fabulous, a pesky doorstepping Christian in 15 Storeys High, plus appearances in sketch affairs, The Fast Show and The Armstrong and Miller Show. Dexter first came to prominence in The Real McCoy, the kind of television showcase for black comedy talent that’s as needed now as it was then. Dexter has built on his particular knack for character comedy and made several forays into the acting world including a stint at the RSC. Fringe crowds may remember him in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Not Just Another White Guy Lost in the Shuffle marks Dexter’s full return to the stand-up fold. ‘When I was at the RSC I had a ten-month period where I must have played just three or four gigs,’ he explains. ‘I would come back to stand-up and think “how does this work?”’ When he did make a full return he found that stand-up, the first love which he stumbled upon at an open spot night at Jongleurs (and ultimately overtook a possible career in law), was an irresistible force. ‘It’s where my hunger is. With stand-up you are responsible for the whole evening whereas in a theatrical situation you’re at the behest of the cast and director.’
Of course his time as part of an ensemble has given the Caribbean-born, Surrey-bred performer a few yarns that he can work into his solo act. ‘One of my first experiences was this woman in a kaftan coming and asking me if I could be the sea: every drama student’s nightmare. So there I am wondering how deep I am, if I have boats in me, or if I am in a harbour? I was going like this [makes whooshing sound and waves arms gently] and she comes up, stares at me quizzically and says, “What are you doing?” I say, “I am being the sea” and she says, “No, you’re not; you’re being the sound of the sea, aren’t you?” So I just changed the sound a bit and she goes, “That’s it!”’ It won’t just be tales of thespian goings-on that Dexter will be fielding as material for his new show.
‘So much of stand-up is about sensing the zeitgeist, what is that people are moved by, challenged by or focused on socially or politically.’ Dexter feels a ‘willingness to let people go places to say exactly what you feel however unpalatable it may be.’ Which means that in the guise of a un-PC character, Dexter feels able to make a joke like ‘a lot of people died in Burma recently, but on the good side there’s a lot more orphans for childless British couples to adopt.’
Of the joke he comments, ‘it’s dark, definitely, but for me it’s saying something about the reality of what goes on but also saying something about the Eurocentric focus of news.’ It’s also an example of what the comedian thinks audiences expect: that need to be challenged. ‘The craft of doing comedy has become much more polished and audiences want to be taken somewhere; it’s not just about seeing a bloke at the mic being ironic.’ You can tell that Dexter’s return to the stand-up fold has taken hold, as he asserts that the form can be ‘no less stimulating than theatre’ and laments the fact that comics are seen as ‘the Mexican roadsweepers of the entertainment industry’.
The difference between comedians and actors is about a perceived hierarchy and Dexter is well-placed to understand both. ‘I remember during one rehearsal of Cuckoo’s Nest being asked by the director to react to Christian Slater in a certain way as he came on stage. I found myself asking, “What’s my motivation?” but thinking, “Nooo!” as the words came out of my mouth. Afterwards Dave Johns came up to me and said, “Felix, I just saw the stand-up in you leave the room and go out the window.’ That stand-up is well and truly back in the room.
Felix Dexter, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 2–25 Aug (not 6, 13), 8.20pm, £11–£12 (£9.50–£10.50). Previews until 1 Aug, £6.