Last night, a well-known agency staged a ’comedy showcase’ of some of their acts. There were around ten acts.
With the exception of one-and-a-half acts, it was a laughter-free zone.
They were actors and actresses showcasing their acting talent without interruption by humour. They were not comedians.
The result of actors trying to be comedians to ‘fill-in’ before they get ‘proper’ acting jobs is almost always a terrible, humorless dog’s dinner. It is usually a Pyrrhic victory of performance skills over comedy.
Which is why Laurence Owen is a joy to behold. His show Lullabies of Pervland has a humdinger of a song about how women’s roles in Disney movies are defined and limited – it has wonderfully complex and intelligent lyrics performed by Laurence to a perfect pastiche of the whole gamut of Disneyesque tunes. He acts as four characters in the song, including a wiseguy bird from, it seems, the Bronx. A wondrous blend of acting, singing, composition and comedy.
“Disney women don’t have a huge amount going for them after a certain point,” Laurence explained to me. “Their career options are limited and there’s always at least one dead parent – usually the mum – which leaves these young characters flailing and alone so they can have scary adventures. The Lion King is Hamlet with lions.”
“The thing is,” I said, “you act your Disney pastiche song so well.”
“Well, when I was little,” said Laurence, “I used to be a kid actor. I did various bits and bobs. I was in a film called Wilde with Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde.”
“Heavens!” I said. “You weren’t the one who got buggered?”
“No,” said Laurence. “That was Jude Law. I played Stephen Fry’s son.”
He also auditioned for the part of Harry Potter.
“I suppose I probably look more like Harry Potter now,” said Laurence.
“So,” I asked, “you wanted to be an actor, not a musical performer?”
“Yeah. I started off as an actor. I was six when I started. I did a costume drama thing for the BBC about nannies – Berkeley Square – and I played a young Brian Blessed in a film called The Mumbo Jumbo which was mad but had a great cast – Sylvester McCoy, Melinda Messenger, John Inman from Are You Being Served?, Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Show, Joss Ackland, Brian Blessed…”
“To have Joss Ackland and Brian Blessed in the same film is quite something,” I said.
“There is a lot of shouting in it,” said Laurence. “I never met Brian Blessed, but they curled my eyebrows up into these big spikes and put grey in my temples, even though I was playing a 10-year-old version of Brian Blessed and I had this one line which I had to deliver in a cod Brian Blessed voice.
“My voice broke when I was about 11 and, after that, I stopped getting work. When I was 12, I looked and sounded about 14 and no-one is interested in that; they want people who can play younger. I went and saw my agent and she basically told me I was not cute enough any more.”
“But you still wanted to perform.”
“Yes. About the same time this happened – about the age of 12 – I started learning the guitar and forming little bands at school and we made little albums. I made my first album when I was 13 and it’s practically unlistenable to, but I’m quite glad we did it. I got into Pink Floyd and things like that – old bands. Throughout my teenage years, I made a load of very over-reaching, quite wanky prog rock things on acoustic guitars.”
There is a video on YouTube of Laurence (centre), aged 18, singing with a band called Freak Kitchen.
“And, all this time, my mum was taking me to the Edinburgh Fringe every year,” Laurence told me.
“Because she loves it. I think this year was her 22nd consecutive year. Never been a performer, just a punter. She’s a champion hobbyist. She’s heavily involved in the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, edits The Sherlock Holmes Journal and goes on jaunts across Switzerland to the Reichenbach Falls and all that. She’s learning Japanese now.”
“Because she’s interested in eccentric islands.”
“So she took you to the Fringe every year?”
“Yes. I remember, aged 10, seeing Simon Munnery and feeling Wow! I’ve never seen anything like this before! He was doing his League Against Tedium. I remember being really, really inspired by it.”
“At that point,” I asked, “did you want to be a straight stand-up comic?”
“No. I discovered comedy by accident. I went up to Edinburgh every year for years, then started doing music, went to university in Brighton to study music and had this vague idea I would be a composer for a living. Then I moved back to London and started working in my old school in the music department as a kind of admin slave.
“At the same time, I was also performing slightly humorous shanty-type storytelling type songs with bits of weird, dark humour at these very earnest music nights with singer-songwriters who were whingeing on about their girlfriends. The audience really hated my songs and I was getting really down. No-one was interested at all and I was going to just stop and not bother any more, but my flatmate said: We run a little comedy night. Why don’t you come and try it out there?”
There is a showreel of Laurence’s musical comedy material on YouTube.
“So you started doing music-based gigs at comedy clubs,” I said. “But you were never interested in being a straight stand-up?”
“I’m a bit scared of that,” said Laurence. “I don’t think I quite have it in me. And I don’t really want to be a club comedian. I’m not entirely sure what I want to do yet, but I know it’s fairly cross-genre. Bits of all sorts of performance practices. For the new show, which I’m starting to formulate at the moment, I’m not having any guitar at all. It’s going to be all big backing tracks in the same way I do my Disney song.
“The new show (for Edinburgh 2015) is called Cinemusical and it’s gonna be a show about different aspects of film music, apeing all sorts of different film genres and casting a load of mis-matched characters together in a hybrid. I’m going to cast members of the audience as different characters. There will be a gunslinger Western character, a Lara Croft style Indiana Jones type person.”
“A few years ago,” said Laurence, “I did make a concept album in the style of Ennio Morricone called South of The River – set in South London. It was about a day in the life of a charity fundraiser, going up to people in the street. He was a kind of lonely guy who got through his existence by pretending to be Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. So, in his own brain, each of these encounters was like a duel and the album was the music which was playing in his head as he was going up to people in the street. It was basically a spaghetti western set inside a man’s head.”
There is a video from it on YouTube – a song called A Moment of Your Time.
“I think pastiche is what I’m interested in. I’ve now got to the stage where I do make a living by performing and composing. I’m a composer for film and theatre.
“At the moment, I’m working for a theatre company called 1927. I think they’re called that because that was the year the movie Metropolis came out. They get a lot of influence from silent films. They have live actors and actresses who interact with projected animation on a huge screen the size of the stage. And they have a live pianist. The show I’m working with them on at the moment is a show called Golem, based on the Jewish folk tale and on the silent film. They have a pianist and a drummer for this one and, to complement the stuff they’re playing live, I’ve made a pre-recorded sound score which goes on around it. It’s being staged at The Young Vic in December.”
“Do you have any urge left to act?”
“I’d quite like to.”
“You should do Harry Potter: The Musical.”
“I’d love to do that.”