Comedians take on dramatic roles at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014
Lucy Porter, Richard Herring, Suki Webster and Russell Kane discuss swapping comedy for drama
This article is from 2014.
‘It must be irritating for actors and directors because comedians muscle in everywhere,’ Lucy Porter muses. ‘We’re like, “yeah we’ll have a go at that, why not?” I think we are naturally quite reckless.’
It’s a good year for recklessness. Stand-up Porter debuts her first ever play, The Fair Intellectual Club, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – and she’s not the only comic turning a hand to theatrical writing. Kim Noble’s You’re Not Alone will be at the Traverse this month, along with Fringe First winner Mark Thomas’ Cuckooed. 2010 Comedy Award winner Russell Kane’s written a monologue in which he gets to play a ‘nasty fucking bastard’, Impro Chum Suki Webster brings us her debut play, My Obsession, and Richard Herring’s back with his first play since the late 90s.
‘Back then,’ Herring explains, ‘I was a slightly young upstart doing my double act with Stewart Lee. I got frustrated because I thought those plays were good. But comedy critics thought I’d got above myself for writing plays, and theatre critics thought “who’s this comedian writing plays?”’
Today’s Fringe climate is generally more accepting. Ever since the runaway success of 2003’s Guy Masterson-directed 12 Angry Men, comedians have popped up all over the theatre programme – Daniel Kitson went from Perrier winner to Fringe First darling and Phil Nichol’s received critical acclaim for his performances with the Comedians Theatre Company. So what’s inspired this year’s crop of comics-turned-playwrights to turn to the theatre?
For Porter, it was the discovery of a good story. The Fair Intellectual Club is inspired by the true tale of three young women from Edinburgh who, at the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment, set up their own society to teach themselves subjects that were usually only taught to men.
'Obviously, they didn’t go on to be great figures of the Enlightenment,' Porter explains. 'They fell at the hurdle of domesticity and marriage like so many women do. They published a manifesto that outlined their rules and constitution, and it’s heartbreaking because they say "wouldn’t it be nice to live in a society where women were valued as much for their minds as their bodies". And yeah, 300 years later, wouldn’t it still be nice.'
Porter's play is a fictionalised account of these young women and fans of her stand-up will certainly detect the influence of her comedy background – though it has posed some dangers. ‘I’m used to writing for my own voice,’ she says, ‘and I couldn’t help but identify more strongly with one of the characters in this play. So the danger there is that I’ve written a stand-up show for one of them. When I’m writing stand-up, I tend to wander off on massive tangents and I could feel my signature waffle-y style creeping into this too, so it’s been good discipline to stop doing that.’
In Suki Webster's My Obsession, she plays a superfan who meets their idol: a comedian played by fellow Impro Chum and husband, Paul Merton. And she's found her improv background an unexpected boost to her playwriting skills.
‘Interestingly,’ she explains, ‘I wrote the play by imagining myself improvising it on stage with different people, normally the Impro Chums. At the beginning, I imagined I was on stage with Mike McShane, and then I imagined I was on stage with Lee Simpson, and then with Paul. In my head, I improvised it out with me playing one character, and then I improvised it out with me playing the other character. Because otherwise you always give the character you’re playing in your head the best lines.'
Herring’s play, I Killed Rasputin, is about Felix Yusupov, a Russian aristocrat who was involved in the murder of Rasputin. ‘I’ve always been obsessed with Rasputin,’ he says. ‘One of my first Edinburgh shows was called Ra-Ra-Rasputin, which was based on the life of Rasputin as if he’d written Boney M’s hits and was a pop star.’
And even though he's continued to write scripts and TV shows in the 15 years since his last Fringe play, Herring's not found the process easy. 'With a stand-up gig,' he explains, 'I’ll do 40 previews and by the end of that I’ll have a show – you work it out via audience feedback over those 40 nights so it’s a much easier process. It’s just you telling stories, whereas with plays you have to think of a story arc. With a play like this, it’s about trying to make sure you put across all this information that people might not know about what was happening in Tsarist Russia in 1917, without just going “and then what happened was … ” There’s a lot more subtlety to it. It’s really good fun – it’s just really hard.'
Among I Killed Rasputin’s six-strong cast are Justin Edwards (star of The Thick of It and Porter’s husband) and Surgical Spirit’s Nichola McAuliffe, who also directs Russell Kane's monologue, The Closure of Craig Solly. Like Herring, Kane found the process of writing a play harder than the writing he's done before. 'The first stage of it went so badly that I wanted to pull the play from the run,’ Kane admits, ‘but it was too late. Without meaning to sound cocky, I’ve done second, third, fourth drafts – I’ve written a novel for Christ’s sake – but I’ve never ever had to throw something in the bin before and start again and I had to with this. It took two full drafts and I’m very, very glad it did because it’s much more interesting and confusing.'
Kane plays Solly, a violent psychopath who tells the audience about his crimes in the style of a victim closure session, though there won’t – as the programme description hints – be any audience interaction. 'It’s what Lock, Stock with a degree would sound like,' he says. And he's realised in rehearsals that he's had to tone down some of his stand-up impulses: 'Nichola explained to me that the main difference between stand-up and an actor in a play is that a stand-up goes to the audience to seek approval and needs the laughs. Whereas, Craig Solly doesn’t – he just needs to be compelling enough for you to watch through the mess. The moment I turn to you lot, emotionally, and say "please like my writing", it’s fucked. And that is why it’s harder if you’re a stand-up to do a play. It’s harder to put down that instinct for "please like me”.’
Kane's Fakespeare sketches – think Shakespeare in an Essex accent – have seen him dabble with caricature but he wrote Craig Solly specifically to showcase his acting talents. 'I’m not, like, Robert De Niro or anything but I can act,' he says. 'I want to see how far I can go if the audience get behind me because I still don’t know. This’ll be the first time I’ve done it.'
It's never been a better time to try. 'As a performer,' Porter says, 'you don’t feel that the genre boundaries are so closed anymore. Unless they’re coming to see someone they know is a proper gag-smith, a one-liner merchant, I think audiences quite like it if you do something a bit different that they weren’t quite expecting.'
And if it goes badly, we can always blame that natural recklessness. '1.30 in the afternoon in Edinburgh?' laughs Kane. 'What could possibly go wrong?'