Comedians Theatre Company
Ten years of comedic theatre
This article is from 2015.
Since its foundation a decade ago, the Comedians Theatre Company has become a Fringe institution. Phil Nicol and Maggie Inchley, not content to rest on their past successes – which include collaborations with Stewart Lee, Jack Whitehall and even Lionel Blair – are celebrating by bringing seven shows to Edinburgh, ranging from a cabaret evening with a live Nashville band to an adaptation of a classic Russian tale.
The vision of the company runs to supporting new work in diverse ways. Inchley says she is 'very excited: with all of shows we have a different involvement.' But she is most proud of the cultivation of new scripts for new audiences. 'I run a new writing event, Itch Scratch – I think I started it in 2009 – and some of these shows have come out of that project,' she explains. 'We have done all kinds of shows – some are big and glamorous! But the work developing new performers is beginning to start a community among comedians that isn't just about stand-up.' And many of the company's shows have their roots in this community. 'In particular, Jo Romero did her Polish masseur character and she built it up into her first play, Scenes of a Sensual Nature.'
Beyond this shared origin, the company's work is claiming a distinct identity. 'The reviews of the new material have picked up on a certain flavour – a blackness or darkness to the comedy,' Inchley continues. 'It's not deliberate but when comedians write plays, there is a flavour to it … and the lovely thing about working with comedians is there is always humour. We don't do writing that is terribly worthy. It has a twist to it.'
Co-founder Phil Nicol is irrepressibly enthusiastic about his own return to the Fringe. 'Really looking forward to it; it is going to be a wicked one for me. I had last year off, so I am geared up. I'm doing a lot of projects, and all of my shows are coming together. I'm in four, I'm helping and producing seven theatre shows, I am directing two stand-up shows.' His energy seems boundless.
Nicol might be all the more dynamic thanks to a recent break. 'I took a year out – well, I spent about eight weeks in Thailand getting my head together and came back with a real plan, and accepted performance is what I do.' The relaxation gave him a new vision, which reflects the diversity of his company's programme in 2015. 'My output is going to be wide, and to facilitate other people doing that: not in an artsy way.' He is quick to follow his comments with a laugh, sending up his own enthusiasm. 'I am lucky to have a lifestyle that I love and can make a living from it.'
'To celebrate our anniversary, we thought we'd try to help out as many shows as possible,' he says. 'We've got a couple of plays on the free fringe, which is a new thing for us. We've got two main productions: one called Marriage, an adaptation of Gogol by Tom Parry from Pappy's, with an all-star sketch show cast.' The other play sees Nicol team up with self-described 'failed Jewish comedian’ Lewis Schaffer in Giant Leap, which imagines a faked moon-landing and promises more swearing than Glengarry Glen Ross.
Yet Nicol is far from the fast-talking trickster he plays in Giant Leap; he is sincere, dynamic and excited by both the Fringe and his life as a performer. The range of his shows at the Fringe, which also includes a monologue that is 'the third of a trilogy about mental health and the character is a Scottish-Spanish angel', suggest an artist who is comfortable balancing the serious and the comedic.
This balance is key to the success of the company. Inchley calls Nicol 'an inspiring figure, people want to work with him. He makes things happen' but the company's evolution reflects an integrity that translates into strong productions.
Inchley continues: 'I do feel our company has been organic – performers and comedians want to get together and do something a little out of the box … the community feel has been an influence. It's not a producer casting comedians: the ideas come through from the comedians themselves. And so, people don't know what to expect – it is a little bit unpredictable.'
This has led to the Comedians Theatre Company attracting audiences that cross between genres. Inchley admits the categorisation of the Fringe brochure is awkward.
'I think a lot of people find the marketing aspect difficult: having to choose where to put your show, sometimes you do cross genres. All comedians have actor training. And a lot of one-person shows are comedy, but other bits have dramatic form in them. You'd have to have more categories in the brochure.'
Yet she is positive about the value of her productions. 'I hear people say that our shows have attracted people to a more theatrical style. They wouldn't have chosen a theatre show. We are getting new audiences who would usually only go to see comedy.' And it is in this crossover that Inchley and Nicol have forged themselves a niche at the Fringe, challenging boundaries, finding new collaborations and allowing performers to push their talents in new directions.