The unicorn comedian

Mina the Horse cum unicorn in full flow

aka Mina the Horse cum unicorn in full flow

I first saw Susan Harrison prancing around the stage at Pull The Other One comedy club in SE London. She was appearing as Mina The Horse – a horse which has had plastic surgery to become a unicorn.

But, with character comedian Rebecca Shorrocks, she also runs a monthly variety night called Cabarera, which they started two years ago. The next show is this Thursday.

“We always host it as characters from a particular era – or imaginary characters,” Susan told me, “so, for our first 1980s night, we went for Timmy Mallett and Michaela Strachan.

“Rebecca and I host it as different characters each time. So we’ve been Timmy Mallett & Michaela Strachan and Buzz Aldrin & Neil Armstrong. We like playing men.”

“So are you,” I asked, “basically frustrated actresses waiting until you get the big part?”

“No,” Susan said. “We started as actors. We met on the 10-month tour of a play called Bad Girls – not the TV prison one – and we used to play alternative characters in the wings and, from that, we started doing sketch comedy. We host Cabarera as different characters and it’s nice for the audience because they get invested in our story through it, as well as having the other conventions of a comedy night.”

“No openings for Mina The Horse/unicorn, then?” I asked.

“I did a version of the her in the Victorian night, “ replied Susan. “I made her Victorian.”

“How do you make a horse/unicorn Victorian?”

“I changed her speech patterns. That’s the nice thing about Cabarera: you get to write new material each time.”

“So who is your audience?” I asked. “The comedy club audience or the performance art audience?”

“Maybe a bit of both.”

Susan Harrison: non-unicorn persona

Susan Harrison: non-unicorn persona

“Where did you train?”

“At the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow. I really like Glasgow. Have you ever been?”

“I prefer Edinburgh,” I said, “When I was about six years old, I nearly got run over by a car on a zebra crossing in Glasgow. I never forgave the city.”

“I think Edinburgh’s prettier,” said Susan, “but Glasgow’s friendlier.”

“Not on zebra crossings,” I said. “But you spent three years in Glasgow?”

“Yes,” said Susan. “And then a year at Dundee Rep. I do love Scotland and the potato scones, but I came to London for more acting work.”

“And you fell into comedy?” I asked.

“I’ve been doing it since 2005,” said Susan, “and I’ve done three Edinburgh Fringe solo shows, so it’s definitely the primary thing now. I think comedy parts are a lot more interesting.”

“Why?”

“Because I always used to get cast as straight, boring, innocent young…”

“Ah, yes,” I said, looking the diminutive, fresh-faced Susan. “You’re always going to be the daughter, aren’t you…”

“Yes,” said Susan. “It was really tedious. The way people write young female protagonists is really boring. There’s nothing to play with. Like Alice in Wonderland. Her role is just reacting to all the more interesting roles. I’d much rather be a weird creature.”

“So maybe there are no innocents in comedy?” I asked.

“A lot of character in comedy,” suggested Susan, “is flawed character.”

“Well,” I said, “good comedians are maybe all damaged and flawed. You don’t seem weird enough to be a comedian.”

“I think,” replied Susan, “if you don’t have an outer madness, you do have to have an inner weirdness.”

“Mmmm… weird,” I mused, “I suppose you are prancing round as a unicorn. Why that?”

“That was from my second Edinburgh show,” explained Susan. “It was called Creatures and it was all mythical creatures. There was a Loch Ness Monster who was in foster care and a fairy who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a Borrower who was addicted to Tippex – it was a Trainspotting spoof. The unicorn was from that show and she seemed to also work as a stand-alone character.”

“It can be difficult to fit surreal characters like that into comedy clubs,” I said.

“Yes,” said Susan,. “We partly set up Cabarera as a way to create our own environment and be as weird as we liked. But there is a mixture. We have the more weird, alternative acts but there are also more straight character comedy acts or more straight sketch groups. It’s not all hardcore alternative. It’s a mixture.”

“Has it changed in the last two years?” I asked.

Susan Harrison’s  Cabarera audience

The eclectic Cabarera audience – as interesting as the show

“At the very start,” said Susan, “we were impersonating famous people and finding our own take on them. We would host as, say, Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh… but now we’re just doing fictional characters from the era. We co-write everything and it’s different mini-narratives each time.

“Hopefully it holds the audience’s attention throughout the night and they get invested in our relationship. We have some ups and downs within our relationship. The theme of this month’s show is Biblical, so we’re hosting it as God and Jesus.”

“Which are you?”

“Jesus.”

“Could the shows turn into a 6-part TV series?” I asked.

“It’s very theatrical,” said Susan. “It’s very much a stage experience. We involve the audience. And it’s interesting to see what the acts will come up with. Some have characters who naturally fit into an era; others write special material. Lindsay Sharman wrote something specific for the medieval night and brought a medieval instrument with her.”

“People seem to keep asking at the moment,” I said, “what the new alternative comedy is.”

“Well,” said Susan, “I think the distinctions now are blurred between performance art and comedy and acting. And I think the improvisation scene in London has become a lot bigger in the last couple of years. That’s probably had a knock-on effect, because a lot of comedians have been doing improv classes and I think that really feeds into everyone’s work.”

“Alternative comedy originally included jugglers and poets and mimes and people torturing teddy bears,” I said. “Now it’s just back-to-back stand-up.”

“That’s what’s nice about variety nights,” said Susan. “We try to have a mixture at Cabarera. Sometimes we’ll have a band that’s been adapted to the era. We had an amazing puppet burlesque – a Japanese puppeteer who has this maquette act where it’s her head on a puppet’s body and the puppet strips. It’s lovely to throw in stuff like that which you would never ever see at a stand-up club. It’s not jokes, but it’s beautiful and there are laughs.”

“It would be good,” I said, “if the stand-up, cabaret, gay and burlesque circuits overlapped more and there were more variety nights.”

“I think everything is blending more,” said Susan. “I’ve done cabaret nights and stand-up nights as Mina The Horse.”

Susan (2nd from left) in the CBBC series DNN

Susan (2nd from left) with the cast of the CBBC series DNN

“And,” I said, “you’re also appearing in the CBBC series DNN.”

“Yes,” said Susan, “that goes right into August. I think there’s quite a lot of cross-over now with comedians who do CBBC. I think Horrible Histories was really helpful: it was successful and adults enjoyed it as well. DNN is not patronising or cutesie or sweet; it’s good, really silly, daft stuff.”

“And beyond that?” I asked.

“Well, I’m writing a sitcom, as everyone is,” said Susan.

“Surreal?” I asked.

“It’s quite different from what I normally do,” Susan replied. “It’s much more naturalistic.”

“No unicorns?” I asked.

“No,” said Susan. “No unicorns.”

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Filed under Comedy, Performance, Theatre

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