When I met Beth Vyse in London’s Soho Theatre this week, she had come straight from lecturing drama students in acting at the University of Rochester in Kent.
“I didn’t know you lectured,” I said.
I think research can be over-rated.
“Worked at?” I asked.
“Taught at. Directed at,” said Beth.
“You know a bit about drama, then?” I asked.
“I know a lot about Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare and that kind of stuff. I performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company a few times when I first left drama school – small parts in three Shakespeares and then I understudied the leads. I was in Taming of The Shrew, The Tamer Tamed, Measure For Measure and…”
“The Tamer Tamed?” I asked.
“It’s the sequel to Taming of the Shrew,” Beth told me. “By John Fletcher.”
“Were you teaching Jacobean stuff in Rochester today?” I asked.
“I was doing animal studies with them. They study animals and the physiology of animals and how they’re weighted and how they walk and communicate and eat. They find the characters within the movement of animals.”
“Surely,” I said, “there are a limited number of roles to play in Planet of the Apes and Star Wars?”
“You can use it in anything,” Beth told me. “My comedy career, perchance.”
“When were you last a camel?” I asked.
“I haven’t done a camel,” admitted Beth, “but I’ve done a golden-headed tamarin many a time. Facial expressions. Eating.”
She started making screeching noises like a small monkey.
“I also teach at Soho Theatre,” Beth said. “I teach at the Comedy Lab Plus. I work with people who are already on the circuit, sketch performers, some performance artists, some cabaret performers, some normal stand-ups. I help them to try different things, shape their sets, make them more theatrical, use the audience, eye contact, that sort of thing.”
“You always wanted to study drama at university?” I asked.
“I applied to five universities. I wanted to be a town planner. But I thought: Why not apply to one drama school? So I did. And I got an audition at Rose Bruford, got in and the rest is history.”
“Why town planning?” I asked. “That says to me: a mind that wants to organise.”
“I’m quite organised when it comes to certain things,” Beth agreed. “Not with some others.”
“You want,” I asked, “to make sense of the anarchy of life?”
“Yeah… Well, that’s why I teach as well. It helps me make sense of things.”
“You want,” I suggested, “to have control – not in a bad way – over the anarchy?”
“Yeah,” said Beth. “I’m always in control. It might look like I’m completely not, but I think I am. I never let it go too much.”
“So your show scripts are very tight?” I asked.
“Going Dark! was really scripted. Get Up With Hands! was scripted. As Funny As Cancer is the least scripted. I wrote lots of it, but I’ve also left room for audience members to come and play the different parts in the story – to play the Chinese doctor, to play Michael Jackson, my mum, my dad. They have to read my cancer diagnosis and that’s pretty hard for anyone. It’s funny but dark and dangerous and weird.”
“And you are a Weirdo,” I said. “I missed the Weirdos Christmas Panto AND your Edinburgh show As Funny As Cancer last year. I’m embarrassed.”
“We had a chat in the street in Edinburgh,” Beth reminded me.
“Oh God, did we?” I asked.
“It was when the Guardian article about me came out.”
The Guardian piece was headlined:
FAKE BREASTS, PING-PONG BALLS AND TEARS IN A COMIC EXPLORATION OF CANCER
Beth told me: “You said I had a bigger picture than the Queen of Spain got when she died.”
“I think there was about two-thirds of a page on you,” I said.
“We have gone off course,” Beth mused.
“It happens,” I said. “When is your show next week?”
“On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Proud Archivist in Haggerston.”
“This is your Edinburgh Fringe show As Funny As Cancer…”
“You started as an actress and then became a comedian.”
“I was always an actor and then I got breast cancer when I was 28 and everything got kind-of thrown up in the air, really, and the acting kind-of dried up because I didn’t really care and then… Well, I always wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to be the David Bowie of comedy or the Kate Bush of comedy – Someone who is kind of weird and experimental and changes themselves each time. I mean, I’m nowhere near doing that. I’m teaching animal studies in Rochester!”
“Well,” I said, “David Bowie and Kate Bush’s early performances were both influenced by mime. I saw David Bowie when he was a mime and…”
“I always wanted to do comedy,” said Beth, trying to get me back on track, “but I was never brave enough. So, when I got breast cancer at 28, I decided I was going to write some comedy and get up and perform it. I thought: You don’t know how long life is and you don’t know how long you’ve got. Why don’t I just try it? What have I got to lose?
“So I started writing with a friend of mine and we took a show to Edinburgh. I really enjoyed it and I’ve just been doing more comedy ever since. My comedy is big and grotesque and raw and it’s all to do with me having breast cancer. Everything I do is, really. Once it happens to you, you can’t really change that.”
“But you didn’t talk,” I said, “about breast cancer in your shows before this one.”
“I didn’t talk about it until the five-years all-clear. Before this show, no-one would have known it had anything to do with me having cancer. I played this woman Olive Hands who was a big, grotesque, daytime TV presenter. All she wanted was fame and she had a really nice family at home but never went. A constant want for something. But why? Why would anyone want this type of thing? It was all to do with that theme of wanting something you couldn’t have. In one show, Olive Hands is ill and this is where it all came from. It seemed mental and silly; no-one would have known what it was about.”
“You got the all-clear after five years?”
“Yes. I hadn’t really let anyone know except my close family and got the five-years all-clear and decided last year was the right year to do As Funny As Cancer. I’m taking the show to Leicester, Manchester, Exeter and, in April, New Zealand and I might be going to Los Angeles later in the year.”
“And the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.
“Why?” I asked.
“People just suddenly win £40,000. I find it very emotional and it’s all done on complete chance. The idea is so stupid and ridiculous, but I find it very emotional and I’m interested in why it gets me like that. It is just boxes with numbers on them. It’s all complete chance.”
“Like life,” I said.