Losing It - Ruby Wax interview
Almost 25 years since her Fringe debut, Wax brings 'mental health comedy’ to Edinburgh
This article is from 2011.
Seasoned festival-goers may remember Ruby Wax’s brief two-day stint with Losing It, her ‘mental health comedy’, back in 2008. Since then, this partly autobiographical opus has grown wings, and been showcased in hospitals and lecture halls across the UK. This year, the show returns for a full Fringe run.
Something of an emotional tour de force, Losing It is a departure for a buxom wise-ass best known for such comedy gold as Not the Nine O’Clock News, French and Saunders and The Full Wax. Indeed, as she laments growing older and finding her place on the comedy landscape, it’s a resoundingly more Zen Wax in residence. ‘It’s not about being sad, it’s about going into a sort of hibernation,’ explains the diminutive star of her own depression. ‘I wanted to create a show that looked at the stigma [of mental illness] but at the same time was entertaining to people, whatever their story. So I’m talking about serious stuff but I’m still being a funny person.’
Following a difficult relationship with her parents as a child, Wax hid her dyslexia as a youngster with humour, a tactic she would revert to in later life when her depression became more evident. The birth of her daughter 20 years ago would prove a turning point. ‘It was a big deal. They weren’t saying I had a virus anymore or that I was just feeling a bit sad; they had a name for it.’ In the years that followed, still ashamed to speak up, Wax would learn more about her condition. Ten years ago, a seed was planted about the possibility of doing a show, and so alongside friend and musician Judith Owen, Wax created a part-comedy, part-music, part-interactive show about mental health, having finally come out about her own problems with depression in recent years.
‘I think with any sort of comedy, people just want to really laugh,’ says Wax. ‘It’s maybe a couple of degrees down from that, but I think people are going to like it.’ Which is not to say that the writing of her latest outing came easy. ‘I’d write something down and it would be shit. I didn’t want to be shallow about it. You get these comedians past a certain age, still talking about their girlfriends and cats: who cares? I knew I had something to say but it took me ten years to work it out. It was a difficult tightrope knowing how to present it, but I got there.’
Never one to commit to a cause lightly, Wax went back to ‘school’ in 2006, picking up a postgraduate diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, before heading for a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford University. Today, she spends her time writing, lecturing on mental illness and holding seminars about leadership. Not bad for a woman once famously snapped in a red lycra swimsuit emulating Baywatch-era Pamela Anderson. ‘I guess I’m much more multi-dimensional than some people might think,’ she says simply.
She and Judith Owen (‘the emotional soundtrack’ to her show) go back a long way: Wax once dated Owen’s husband, Harry Shearer, the voice of Montgomery Burns and Ned Flanders in The Simpsons. ‘We became friends. Not then when I was seeing him … later!’ she qualifies with a throaty laugh.
If Losing It’s success continues, the pair plan to tour it globally, after it hits the West End in September. ‘This is a show I never tire of. There’s a different kind of connection [with the audience] to anything I’ve ever done before; it’s like your family.’ Wax says she is also happy to be returning to the festival for a full run. Having cut her comedy chops here back in 1987, the city is still close to her heart. ‘I love Edinburgh. I came to the Fringe at the start of my career like 100 years ago, in a piece directed by Alan Rickman. It was great.’
If it’s there, Wax shows no evidence of nerves about how the Edinburgh Fringe-going audience might take her show. ‘Hey, I took this show round psychiatric hospitals; I figure if the depressives are laughing, you’ve got a hit.’
Ruby Wax: Losing It, Udderbelly’s Pasture, 0844 545 8252, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 4.10pm, £15–£17.50 (£14–£15). Preview 5 Aug, £10.