Tag Archives: theatre

Heckling a serious play = comic success

The tower of Westminster Cathedral in Victoria, London

Last Friday, with my eternally-un-named friend, I stumbled on the funeral service of a 101-year-old Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral, London’s Catholic Cathedral (not to be confused with the Protestant Westminster Abbey).

I was brought up a Presbyterian – very low church – just occasional hymns, an organ and a bloke standing talking in a pulpit amid undecorated walls.

So the full-whack OTT pomp and theatricality of a Catholic funeral of a Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral was like watching some Las Vegas floorshow. High church Christianity is a bizarre old religion with undertones of gay cannibalism – all that dressing up in colourful camp costumes and eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ while waving smoke about from an amateur smoke machine.

Nearby, the Victoria Palace Theatre was finishing its multi-million pound refurbishment. It will have trouble out-camping the Cathedral.

Anyway, I am currently ill in bed (possibly minor ‘man flu’) and, in between sleeps, randomly surf.

I stumbled on this Wikipedia entry for the Victoria Palace Theatre:


Victoria Palace Theatre, London, today

In 1934, the theatre presented Young England, a patriotic play written by the Rev. Walter Reynolds, then 83. It received such amusingly bad reviews that it became a cult hit and played to full houses for 278 performances before transferring to two other West End theatres. 

Intended by its author as a serious work celebrating the triumph of good over evil and the virtues of the Boy Scout Movement, it was received as an uproarious comedy. Before long, audiences had learned the key lines and were joining in at all the choicest moments. The scoutmistress rarely said the line “I must go and attend to my girls’ water” without at least fifty voices in good-humoured support.


This whetted my appetite and I found that, at some early performances, the Rev. Walter Reynolds would reportedly walk up and down the aisles of the theatre during performances telling people to be quiet. He soon changed his tune.

The actors (who otherwise played their roles straight) eventually made a game of ad-libbing if the crowd beat them to their lines. On one occasion the villain, when led away by the police, paused before saying “Foiled!” and the crowd shouted not only “Foiled!” but “Baffled!” “Beaten!” “Frustrated!” “Outwitted!” “Trapped!” “Flummoxed!” He waited until they were through, then hissed: “Stymied!”

Over a quarter of a million people saw the play.

Elaine Haddelsey of the Jot 101 website has done sterling research on the play and even found one of the theatre’s printed programmes, which has an introduction written by the esteemed Rev.Reynolds himself. I have shortened it:


The original theatre programme

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is a drama somewhere in every edition of our newspapers, and I at once confess that I have unblushingly cut out from them practically all the bits and pieces that were suitable for my story to illustrate the ups and downs of the life that you and I and all of us lead every day.

Having assembled these many snippets and scraps of material, I dovetailed them all together, and the result of my stage carpentering is what I am now venturing to present to you.

In Young England I have aimed at providing a solid three hours of clean and wholesome entertainment to put before you a theatrical bill of fare made up of the joys, the sorrows, the tears, the laughter, the sift romances and the hard realities of our work-a-day existence – idealised, of course, because that is what we all like – but, I hope, made interesting.

I have tried to re-introduce to the living stage some of its long-lost virility and its old-time attraction to provide three full hours of movement and action with clearly-to-be-heard words in place of the inaudibilities of our latter-day theatres. Again, what has impelled me to write Young England is the fact that nearly every week the Movie houses provide their millions of patrons with old-fashioned and often very crude melodramas, proving beyond any doubt that drama, even when it may be poor stuff is the sort of fare that theatregoers are always looking for.

In addition I have most respectfully woven into my play, as an extra pleasurable feature, some threads of the material of one of the most beneficent movements that have ever been instituted in the history of mankind, viz., the creation of the picturesque and practical Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement by the indomitable defender of Mafeking.


In a Spectator piece on 21st December 1934, after its transfer to the Kingsway Theatre, Rupert Hart-Davis wrote:


The Rev Walter Reynolds, serious author

Mn. Reynolds wrote Young England as a deeply serious play, a play with a purpose.

Between the conception and the creation, as Mr. T. S. Eliot has said, falls the shadow. 

In this case the shadow has turned his messages of good will into protestations as richly and unconsciously comical as Bottom’s wooing. Let us not mince matters: Young England is the funniest entertainment now showing in London.

The first act takes place in Wartime, “east of Aldgate pump”. Here there is such a riot of local colour that one has some difficulty in picking out the true blue of the distressed maiden and the white feather of Jabez Hawk, the villain. Jabez deserts the girl, who dies in a convenient Salvation Army shelter, giving birth to a son. A young War-widow takes pity on the infant, adopts him and gives him the simple but telling name of Hope Ravenscroft.

Hope’s betrothal to Lady Mary is a moving scene. “I must be the happiest Scout in England,” he cries; “And I,” echoes his beloved, “must be the happiest Guide.”

The curtain falls on the baronial hall, whose back wall has miraculously changed into Loch Lomond in springtime. Britannia, flanked by Brownies, Wolf Cubs, Scouts, Guides, and the complete company, stands superb against an erratically lowered Union Jack.

All of which may sound entertaining enough on its own account. But what raises it above any other such piece which we have seen recently is the attitude and the co-operation of the audience.

Led by a number of fanatics who have visited the play some twenty or thirty times, the whole body of the house joins continually in the play’s dialogue with quips, running commentary, advice to the characters.

Some of the vocal annotations have become traditional and are repeated at every performance. There is nothing of rowdiness or hooliganism in their attitude. All seem to realize that this unofficial accompaniment is the making of the entertainment. The actors themselves accept it, and it disturbs them not at all.

If this behaviour appears to the reader to be both bewildering and in bad taste, one can only urge an immediate visit to the theatre. The great cyclone of laughter should captivate anybody. As a remedy for the author’s chagrin, one may suggest that to make a theatreful of people lose themselves in laughter during more than a hundred performances may be even more beneficent than the same amount of Boy Scout propaganda.


News of the play’s transfer to the West End and success at the Kingsway Theatre spread to Australia.

On 2nd February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported:


The proud author and some of the unfortunate cast of Young England

In no theatre or cinema or music hall can such uproarious laughter be found.

Mr Reynolds himself generally occupies a box, and he may well suffer agonies over the misrepresentation of his play. But, like the actors and actresses, he accepts the situation, in view of the lucrative consequences. 

Those who have seen Young England come a second time in order to bait the players or to add their own lines. When the errant Scoutmaster is observed to be cracking the Scout’s safe the audience urges him “not to forget to wipe the handle.” When this advice from the stalls is accepted by the villain and he carefully wipes his finger-tips the cheers are terrific.

At another juncture the villain mentions that when he was elected to Parliament the shares in certain companies in which he was interested went up.

“And up, and up, and up, and up,” roars the audience.

Not to be denied a retort, the villain generally interjects, “Well, that’s pretty unanimous,” directing his remark at the shouting stalls.

At another juncture the stage directions indicate that a duchess is calling up someone on the telephone. “Don’t keep the duchess waiting,” shouts the audience. The actor is purposely slow. He reaches the ‘phone amid cries of “Duchess! Duchess! Don’t you know the duchess is on the line?”


Five years later, in the US in December 1939, Time magazine reported:


The opening scenes of the full Young England experience

Shortly after World War II began, it was decided to revive the play. There were some fears that it might have ad-libbed its usefulness, that jesting at patriotism might not go down in wartime. The fears were groundless. With tension in the air, people have been gladder than ever to relax, and with soldiers in the audience, the wisecracks are even rawer than they used to be.

– One set shows a Salvation Army ‘citadel’ with doors marked MEN and WOMEN. Every time an actor starts for one, the crowd shouts: “Wrong door, wrong door.”

– When Boy Scouts or Girl Guides are assigned to “water detail”, voices pipe up: “Stay out of those bushes”; “Be careful of the side of the barn.”

– One night, when the hero was proved not to be illegitimate, someone yelled: “Consider yourself unbastardized.”

Walter Reynolds, Young England‘s 88-year-old author, still takes his dead-serious play seriously. He went to the opening of the revival, a sad, reedy figure in a great black cape, doddered up the stairs to his box holding on to both handrails, sat tense through the uproar, at the end bowed to the audience, thanked them. 

Asked in a BBC interview whether he wasn’t angry at the way audiences treated Young England, he answered:

“No. They’re a little noisy… but they pay as much as 10 pounds and 6 shillings for seats, so they must like it.”

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Japanese Rakugo storytelling from a Canadian in London and New York

When I met Canadian performer Katsura Sunshine at Camden Lock in London, he was wearing a denim kimono and a bowler hat.

“What was your original name?” I asked.

“Gregory Conrad Robic,” he told me. “I’m a Slovenian citizen, born in Toronto.”

“So why are you doing Japanese stuff?” I asked

I met Katsura Sunshine in Camden Lock, London

“In my youth,” he told me, “I was writing musicals based on Aristophanes. One musical version of The Clouds ran for 15 months in Toronto. As I was researching, I read that ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh and Kabuki had all these similarities yet there was no chance of cross-pollination. They were coincidental similarities. I thought that was really interesting, so I went to Japan to see Kabuki. I intended to stay for 6 months, but 18 years went by and now I live in Tokyo and London.”

“Half and half?” I asked. “You are based in Tokyo and Camden Town?”

“Yes, for the last few years. I am going to perform at the Soho Playhouse in New York in November and then I might move to New York. Nothing is planned. I might not.”

“So,” I asked, “how are ancient Greek theatre and Japanese theatre similar?”

“Use of masks,” said Sunshine. “And the same actors playing different roles. And the musical instruments are very similar.”

“And, from Noh and Kabuki,” I said, “you got interested in other styles?”

“Yes. I loved being there so, after five years, when I could actually speak some Japanese, someone introduced me to Rakugo performance, which is quite inaccessible to a non-Japanese speaker; it’s not commonly done in English. Kabuki is very visual, but Rakugo is basically kneeling on a cushion and moving your head left and right to delineate different characters.”

The Kamigata Rakugo Association Hall in Osaka, Japan

Sunshine is currently the only professional non-Japanese storyteller officially recognized by the Kamigata Rakugo Association.

“It’s traditional Japanese storytelling,” I said.

“Yes.”

“So what attracts you to Rakugo?”

“The simplicity of it. All you need is a kimono, a fan and a hand towel to create a storytelling world for people. The first half is a lot like stand-up comedy, where you are just doing anecdotes and trying to feel out the audience and, while you are doing that, you are trying to figure out which story to tell… When you decide which story would suit this audience, you take off your upper kimono and launch into the story.

“The stories have been passed down for 200, 300, 400 years from master to apprentice, from master to apprentice. There is a shared pool of stories. My own master (Katsura Bunshi VI) has made up around 250 different stories.”

“The style of the stories,” I said, “is traditional but the details in them could still involve something like travelling on a metro or in an aeroplane?”

“Yeah. Stories about city life, the neighbourhood, human relations. The style of the story transcends the centuries.”

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever…”

“So when you tell a story,” I asked, “are you improvising details within a template story?”

“No. You improvise in terms of the choice of material but the actual material is set. You limit yourself to two characters in conversation or, at most, three and every story ends in a punchline, as if it were one long, extended joke.”

“A funny punchline?” I asked.

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever, but it’s something that ties the whole story together in a satisfying ending.”

“You said ‘wordplay’ OR ‘funny’,” I pointed out. “As if Japanese wordplay is not necessarily comedic.”

“There are so many levels,” Sunshine explained. “Japanese has a limited number of sounds so there are many levels to wordplay. Some are funny; some are beautiful. It’s not always making someone laugh with wordplay.”

“So sometimes the audience just appreciates the cleverness?”

“Yes.”

“There are basically three types of venue,” I said. “Comedy, theatre and music venues. Which is Rakugo most suited to?”

“That’s an interesting question,” said Sunshine. “It is a theatrical form that happens to be comical.

Sunshine at the Leicester Square Theatre, March 2017

“The first year I went to the Edinburgh Fringe, I listed myself in the Comedy section, but I think a lot of the audience were expecting guffaws from the very beginning. It is storytelling, but not laugh-a-minute and there is a through-line and I don’t think it suited that audience. The next year, I put myself in Theatre and I think it suited the audience much better.”

“How many years have you played the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“This would have been the fourth year, if I had made it. I had to cancel my whole run because, once you get out of hospital, they instruct you not to fly for a certain amount of time.”

“And you were in hospital,” I prompted, “because you had…?”

“Deep vein thrombosis and Economy Class syndrome – pulmonary embolism. I had one long flight back from New York which… I think that’s where I contracted it.”

“But you are OK now?”

“Mmmmm….”

Earlier this year, in March, Sunshine played one night at the Leicester Square Theatre in London, packed to its 400-seat capacity.

“You are,” I prompted, “doing ten more shows at the Leicester Square Theatre starting this Sunday and running until October 15th.”

“Yes.”

“In English.”

“Yes. Rakugo is surprisingly translatable. I don’t really adapt the stories. They are directly translated into English. The points where people laugh in Japanese are generally the same points where people laugh in English. The humour of the traditional Rakugo stories is very situation-based and character-based – miscommunication; husband and wife fighting; a thief who never manages to steal anything. It doesn’t depend on the intricacies of language as much as situations which anybody in any culture can understand.”

“Comedy audiences in this country,” I said, “are maybe in the 20-35 age range. Below that, they can’t afford to go out a lot. Over that, they may be stuck at home with children. So the material is aimed at younger adult audiences.”

“Rakugo is very ‘clean’,” said Sunshine. “Very family-oriented, so the whole family come; they bring the children.”

The chance of Rakugo dying out is about this…

“Is Rakugo dying out in Japan,” I asked, “with each new generation?”

“No. There are 800 professional storytellers in Japan and they all make a living from it. There’s a huge number of shows going on every day all over Japan, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka, but we travel all over the country all the time.”

“Is there storytelling on Japanese TV?”

“Not too much. Storytellers get on TV in the variety shows.”

“So it is not dying out?”

“No. No chance, though it goes in waves. Maybe every 3 or 4 years, there are TV series looking at Rakugo and that gets people interested again. In terms of the number of storytellers, it’s at its peak right now.”

“Men AND women perform?” I asked.

“It’s traditionally quite a male world, but now more and more women are joining the ranks. Out of the 800 storytellers, there are maybe 40 or 50 women. About 30 years ago there were almost none. In the Osaka Tradition of storytelling, the most senior Master is a woman and she is I think under 60 years old.”

“When you do your shows in Japan,” I asked, “do you see the audience?”

“Yes. One big difference to Western theatre is that, in Japan, we keep the house lights on. You want to see everybody in the audience. The visual communication is very important.”

Sunshine posters in London’s tube

“The lights will be up at the Leicester Square Theatre?”

“Yes.”

“You have,” I said, “posters promoting the show on escalators in Leicester Square tube station.”

“And in Piccadilly Circus station,” said Sunshine. “My dream was always to perform in the West End with posters on the escalators and my face on a London taxi.”

“You have ads on taxis?” I asked.

“Well,” said Sunshine, “to really advertise effectively on a taxi, you need about 200 of them.

“We just got one taxi painted. It is about £250 to have it painted and then something like £200 per month for one taxi plus £75 for one hour with a driver.

Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!”

“So we paid a driver for two hours and just took pictures all round London. So, in terms of social media, the cost to have a Sunshine taxi all over the internet was maybe £600.

“When I put the pictures up in Japan maybe six months ago – six months before these shows in Leicester Square – people were like: Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!

“And,” I said, “the name Leicester Square Theatre will impress the Americans.”

“Yes.”

“You are a very clever man,” I said. “And it is a very nice denim kimono.”

“I designed it myself,” Sunshine told me. “The sleeves are removable so I can change them. I will wear a more traditional kimono on stage.”

I did not ask him about the bowler hat.

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Edinburgh Fringe Day 7: Three naked bottoms, tears and a cunning stunt

Today, I watched three performers talking out of their arses. Hardly a new thing at the Edinburgh Fringe, you might think.

I couldn’t possibly be cheap enough to use a pun

Except this was the much-touted Wild Bore comic theatrical piece at The Traverse in which Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott perform with their naked bottoms (and occasionally with the rest of their bodies).

It is a knowingly self-referential post-modernist labyrinth of analysing and criticising critics and the performance itself with some wonderful surreal images – the sight of them running around naked and erect with their heads inside their own bottoms made me glad I never remember my own dreams and nightmares.

The self-referencing reminded me inevitably of that 1969 movie I am always banging on about in this blog – Anthony Newley’s Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? – You sit there thinking the movie is a self-indulgent mess and then, at one point, three ‘movie critics’ walk on the screen and start criticising it in detail for all the many faults you have just been thinking about. I sat through it twice when I first saw it, because I had no idea whether I liked it or not. I was still not sure after seeing it twice, but it was and is certainly addictive.

Nathan Willcock’s State of The Nathan at Moriarty’s also kept referring to itself and had a strangely straight, middle-of-the-road, middle-aged, non-Fringe audience happily sitting through and enjoying an hour of his (as he admitted to them) liberal Londoner comedy.

Daddy Kamali – indefatigably charismatic

The indefatigably charismatic Jody Kamali was pretending to run a hotel – Hotel Yes Please – in a room in the actual Apex Hotel/Sweet venue in Grassmarket where he played multiple characters, integrated the audience into the show and unusually-for-him added some genuine personal stuff into a character playing another character. Apparently last year’s Fringe show was such a happy experience that, on the final night, he celebrated with his wife and the result is that he now has a daughter.

I think he will make a good dad.

Which was something Lewis Schaffer’s dead mother told him (Lewis) in one of the 23 letters he is opening nightly in Unopened Letters From My Mother at the Counting House. As he said in this blog two days ago: “To me, the letters are full-on scary and sad. But funny for the audience.”

Lewis Schaffer reads his mother’s letter for the first time

He says he does not know why he did not open the 23 letters she sent him between 2000 and her death in 2011, some from a mental hospital.

But I do remember the late Malcolm Hardee, going through a bout of depression the like of which people would not imagine Malcolm Hardee had, telling me that he was only opening one in three of the letters he received through the post. The other two he threw away without even checking who they were from.

After tonight’s performance – well, performance is the wrong word – experience – someone said to me: “I have never seen Lewis show that sort of real emotion on stage before”.

Lewis’ shows are always one-offs. These ones almost go beyond unique, if such a thing were possible.

Which could also be said of Becky Fury’s show tonight at the Black Market. Well, she did not actually perform her prepared show but improvised 55 minutes around the audience which included a Polish social worker who came to Edinburgh for the Fringe last year and just stayed. He said he was attracted to her show title Molotov Cocktail Party because of what happened at Polish football matches.

Becky Fury – not hosting a Christian show at all

Then there was the young Spanish couple who were there despite, it seemed, not actually being able to understand any English. Becky at first persuaded them it was a Christian show in which everyone had to bare themselves and managed to get the male half of the couple to strip off.

And then there was the American girl who arrived late. She said she played the violin and sewed.

“Simultaneously?” asked Becky.

Alas no, but she then took out her sewing and continued throughout the rest of the show while listening and participating. She said she was not a performer but did busk naked in Seattle, playing the violin.

I do believe this was and is true. But who knows?

In this blog four days ago, Martha McBrier mentioned that she had received a complaint about the fact that she plays a didgeridoo during her Balamory Doubtfire show – something that women are not allowed to do in Aboriginal culture. A white sociology professor in New York had accused her of racism, sexism and subjugating an entire culture.

The story was followed up, with more details, in Bruce Dessau’s Beyond The Joke site, on the Chortle comedy site and  in The Scotsman.

Chortle carried quotes from Janet McLeod, producer of the Melbourne Comedy Festival show Aborigi-LOL, and Dane Simpson, a comedian from the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay culture.

Martha McBrier – cunning player of religious instruments

Tonight, I got a message from Martin Walker, who told me that, during the recording of his On The Mic podcast, Martha had admitted that the whole thing was a cunning stunt.

The didgeridoo appears on her flyer/poster and makes an admittedly brief appearance in her show so I do wonder if this is a stunt planned so far in advance that it is almost a work of art in its own right.

On the other hand, allegedly offending Aboriginal didgeridoo players might not have been a stunt at all but, on seeing the reaction, Martha decided to say it was a stunt to fan the flames of publicity and edge ever closer to a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt nomination.

Only time will tell.

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Edinburgh Fringe Day 2: Good advice on dodgy comedy stage show directors

In this blog yesterday, a comedy performer whom I did not name was complaining about the way they had been treated by their director who had just said their show being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe could be directed from London without the director coming up to Edinburgh at all. 

I know a few theatre directors and got this response from the highly-experienced and much admired Catherine Arden (who is NOT the director in question). In other words, this is good advice…


Advice from Catherine Arden, director

I was concerned to read about the performer whose director did not support him or her to bed in the show for the opening week in Edinburgh.

I served two 2-year terms on the Equity Theatre Directors’ Committee and recently attended a conference where this type of thing was discussed and strongly disapproved of. It gives professional directors a bad name and is not good for the industry!

Some suggestions for the performer:

–  If both the performer and director are Equity members, Equity can help resolve and give assistance to the performer to make contracts clearer in future.

–  There is a Fringe contract the performer might want to look at.

–  If the director is an Equity member, the performer can report this poor behaviour to Equity.

–  If the performer is an Equity member, then he or she can get further guidance on the matter and learn how to safeguard future dealings.

If neither the performer nor director are Equity members, I recommend the performer goes along to the Equity desk in Edinburgh.

Equity is running workshops at the Edinburgh Fringe which are great for professional development as well as for networking with proper professionals.

Also, Equity says…

If you are a member or student member taking part in any of the Edinburgh Festivals and need advice or support at any point please contact our local office on 0141-248-8472 or scotland@equity.org.uk

The Fringe has its Venues and Companies team for any show or venue taking part in the festival and they may also be able to help: participants@edfringe.com

Failing all that, your performer can get in touch with me as a director with Fringe experience if she wants a director who will give her the support he or she needs – and deserves! 🙂

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Between the Sheets with Polly Rae, Entrepreneuress of Burlesque…

Polly Rae, entrepreneuress of burlesque

Tomorrow night, burlesque entrepreneur (entrepreneuress?) Polly Rae is fronting the first of seven summer shows called Between The Sheets at the Underbelly’s Spiegeltent on London’s South Bank. It is her fourth year there.

“Why that title?” I asked her.

“Because it’s a show about sex. I am the host and invite everyone into my boudoir to share my fantasies and sensualities.”

“Not a one-woman show?” I asked.

“No. There are eight of us. It’s a variety-cabaret-burlesque show. We perform as an ensemble but they also have individual acts. We have circus performers, male dancers, a clown-comedienne. We’ve been refining this show with various different casts for 4 or 5 years. This is our fourth season here at the Underbelly. The core cast has remained the same.

“The main headliner is an artist called Kitty Bang Bang, a burlesque fire-breather. We call her The bad ass of burlesque, the wild child, the rocker, the whisky drinker, the whip cracker. Lilly SnatchDragon is our hilarious, glamorous clown-comedienne. And we have Beau Rocks. In her act, she explores the more erotic and sensual side of burlesque – a contemporary act with UV lighting and UV paint. Quite a saucy, futuristic act.”

“Burlesque is stripping,” I said.

“Yes,” agreed Polly. “It is absolutely stripping, pioneered in 1940s and 1950s America and, obviously, Dita Von Teese has popularised it for this generation. I’ve been doing it for about 12 years.”

“Do your parents have a problem with stripping?”

“If you define the physical act then, yes, of course, it’s stripping. But the context is different from stripping in a gentleman’s club. Burlesque is very much about theatre and old-school Variety. It has the combinations of dance, comedy, singing, dancing and the various skills we use.

“So my parents don’t mind at all; they’re very encouraging and they love it. They come to see my shows… My mum brought me up on Madonna… Madonna in the 1980s!… What kind of influence was that?

Ensemble assemble Between The Sheets

“I like to think this show is quite titillating. I like to think it is quite hot under the collar. But it’s not explicit. If there are any moments that are explicit, we soften it with humour. I think it’s very important to have humour in my shows. You’ve got to balance sexiness with wit.”

“Parents in show business?” I asked.

“Not at all. Really, my influence came from my mother bringing me up on Madonna. My dad was an architect. Being an architect was his profession but, as a hobby, he worked on Gerry Anderson TV programmes as a model maker. He worked on Stingray. One of his main shows was Terrahawks… There was a big spaceship; he designed and made that.”

“But not a performer…” I said.

“I grew up loving performance,” Polly told me, “but I didn’t go to stage school. I originally wanted to be a special effects make-up artist. That was my original dream. My dad and I used to watch horror movies – science fiction alien movies and Freddie Krueger and so on. My dad actually worked on the movie Alien.

“When I was born, he moved back up North to Preston and his movie career was over. He was supposed to go and do the second movie – Aliens – but then my mum got pregnant with me and he chose not to carry on, which I feel a bit guilty about: he might have been in Hollywood now.

“I was a beauty therapist out of school. Then I moved from Preston to London and met lots of performers and that changed my life. At 19 years old, I flew to New Orleans and worked on the cruise ships for a few years, in the Caribbean.”

“As a beautician?” I asked.

Polly Rae – “a culture-building exposure” – reddy for anything

“Yes. But what was great was I got to see performers’ lives. It was such a culture-building exposure, meeting people from all parts of the world. I made friends with a lot of the dancers and singers and started to think: Ah! This is quite interesting!

“I decided I wanted to be a Social Host – like MCs who run the games, host the karaoke or whatever – but I couldn’t get that job because I had no experience. So, long story short, I started training in dance and singing and, around 2005, I met Jo King who runs the London Academy of Burlesque.”

“2005,” I suggested, “is around the time burlesque became respectable? Stripping was seen as sleazy but burlesque was acceptable showbiz.”

“I didn’t know what burlesque was,” replied Polly. “That was in 2005. My first performance as a burlesque artist was 2006.”

“Which was,” I said, “roughly when it started to get profile in the UK.”

“Yes,” said Polly. “Dita Von Teese had started slowly, slowly chipping away at the mainstream in the 1990s but, come the early 2000s, that’s when London cabaret clubs started. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club had a show called The Whoopee Club. Then there was a show at Cafe de Paris called The Flash Monkey and a show Lady Luck and a venue called Volupté opened.

“I started working at Volupté and at the Soho Revue Bar – formerly the Raymond Revue Bar. I jumped on the bandwagon at the perfect time. I was in there just BEFORE everyone wanted to go and see a burlesque show and I formulated a troupe of girls called The Hurly Burly Girlies.

Polly Rae and her Hurly Burly Girlies troupe went West End

“Being a burlesque artist, you have to have a gimmick and my thing was singing and I had my troupe of girls with me. There were no troupes at that time.”

“What sort of singing?” I asked. “Ethel Merman?”

“More of a pop ’80s route…”

“Madonna…?”

“Exactly! Exactly! And it worked a treat, John! I wanted to try to be different and to appeal to a wider audience. I figured: If my audience knows the music, I’m gonna get a wider crowd. We worked on musical arrangements of modern songs. We made modern songs sound old. And we did pop songs but we dressed vintage.”

“Post Busby Berkeley?”

If you got it, flaunt it!

“Yes, post Busby Berkeley, for sure. I took a lot of inspiration from Dita Von Teese in the beginning and I think her styling is late-1940s/early 1950s. I also did the whole 1950s bump ’n’ grind thing to classic music like Benny Goodman. We just sort-of mixed it all up, really.”

“So,” I said, “You developed this over time.”

“Yes. I met a gentleman called William Baker, who was Kylie Minogue’s artistic director/visual stylist for the last 25 years. I told him I wanted to make the biggest burlesque show the world – or maybe the UK and Europe – had ever seen. I wanted to create the Cirque du Soleil of burlesque shows.

“I thought at the time I just wanted a stylist: someone to help me on my way a little bit and help me improve the production values. But William said: If I’m going to come and work with you, I want to direct it and bring in my entire creative team.

“And so we created The Hurly Burly Show. It started in 2010 at the Leicester Square Theatre, then we did a season the following year at the Garrick Theatre and, the following year, a season at the Duchess Theatre. After that, we did it in Australia and South Africa. We had a good 3 or 4 years of wonderful madness.”

“Cabaret and burlesque,” I said, “are colourful, kitsch, camp and…”

“Exactly,” said Polly. “It’s diverse, it’s innovative, it’s creative and it’s so unbelievably individual. That’s what I especially love about it.”

“So where can you go now?” I asked. “You have peaked.”

“Being on a West End stage was amazing,” said Polly, “and I won’t stop saying it was the most incredible experience of my life. However, as a burlesque/cabaret artist, when you’re in the Garrick Theatre, there are two balconies and you can’t see anything because the spotlight is blinding you and I can’t connect with the audience in the same way.

Between The Sheets – summer shows

“The intimacy in the Spiegeltent is amazing. You can connect with the audience. In Between The Sheets, we are walking in the aisles, physically sitting on people, stealing their drinks. It’s almost immersive. You can see everybody’s face. I can connect.

“It’s not a West End theatre, but I’m much happier in the Spiegeltent. I feel much more at home and stronger as an artist. My goal is I want to see people react, whether I make them laugh, cry, feel turned-on. The satisfaction of seeing that achieved is amazing.”

“If you have the house lights full up, though,” I suggested, “the audience can feel threatened.”

“Yes, you have to get the balance right. It’s not about having lights up; it’s the proximity. And choosing the right people in the audience.”

“So,” I said, “upcoming, you have…?”

Between the Sheets is my summer project and I like to think we might get picked up and do other little tours here and there. But I also have a residency at The Hippodrome every Saturday night. I also manage the dancers there and do some MCing for corporate parties. And I’m getting married next year.”

“Is he is showbusiness?”

“He’s in hospitality. His name is Eric; he’s from the United States; he’s been here for five years.”

“He’s a lucky man,” I told her.

Polly and Eric

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I ask about Musical Comedy Awards but get sidetracked by exploding intestines

Tamara Cowan was the one who brought up the intestines

“So,” I said, “he now lives in Austria or wherever, but you are his representative here on earth.”

“I think my official title is Creative Director,” Tamara Cowan told me, “but it’s sort-of producing and being The Man on The Ground. I am The Man on The Ground. We do it together.”

“How,” I asked, “did the annual Musical Comedy Awards start?”

“Ed Chappel set it up on his own nine years ago, when he was at Warwick University as part of an Events Management thing. He started it with online entries then hired out the Pleasance, Islington, for the final. The first one was won by Adams & Rea (no longer together as an act).

“The next year, Ed and I were both flyering for Bound & Gagged (comedy promoters) up at the Edinburgh Fringe and he thought it would be really fun to have live heats the next year. I had just had half my intestines chopped out and I was at home recuperating. I was lying there thinking: I don’t really know what I’m going to do when I get back to London. And he texted me saying: Oh, you seem to be good at comedy/chat stuff. Do you want to come and help me with it next time? In fact, I didn’t know anything about comedy.”

“Why,” I asked, “did you need to have half your intestines out?”

“Well, it was actually only a third. I exaggerated.”

“Even so,” I said, “it still begs the question Why?

“They had twisted.”

“Isn’t that what intestines do?” I asked. “Why had they twisted?”

“I don’t know. They twisted and then they got a bit infected and the doctors had to lop a bit off. Apparently it only happens to very young babies and very old people.”

“How old were you?”

“I was 25.”

It was this or a picture of intestines – Ed Chappel publicising the Musical Comedy Awards in 2009.

“The doctors,” I asked, “never mentioned why?”

“I did loads of research and it didn’t really explain it.”

“The doctors never said exactly why they wanted to chop bits out of you?”

“They had done scans and seen it had twisted and exploded.”

“Exploded?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have trouble digesting things now?”

“No. I have to eat quite a lot of fibre to make sure I ‘go’ regularly but, basically, it holds as much as it holds and, if it has less room to hold it, it will just push it out quicker. Tell me you are not going to write about this.”

“Probably.”

“Oh dear.”

“You were in hospital…”

“Yes. As the NHS was a bit overstretched at the time, I ended up updating my own chart sometimes because no-one else was.”

“The chart thing hanging on the end of your bed?”

“Yes.”

“You updated your own chart?”

“Yes. I opened it up and saw all the pictures and it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Your own intestines?“

“Yes. Open. Urghh! That near-death experience put me off acting.”

“Acting?”

“I did an MA at Mountview.”

“So you were an aspiring actress?”

“I was. But that near-death experience put me off. I thought I don’t want to be an actress and then I found comedy and thought This is more fun.”

“So you had a third of your intestines out then decided to move into comedy? There’s a pun there somewhere. We just have to find it.”

“Belly laughs?”

“Mmmm…”

“Gut instinct?”

“Could be.”

“So you moved into comedy but not as a performer, despite the fact you had wanted to act.”

“Well, going to drama school put me right off wanting to go on stage. Then having a near-death experience made me want more of a tangible career.”

“Why did learning to be an actress put you off being an actress?”

“It made me quite self-conscious because you over-thought everything. And, after the near-death experience, I wanted to actually do things rather than rely on people employing me. Rather than have casting directors decide if I was going to do something, I wanted to decide myself to create stuff and do things. And I found the Musical Comedy Awards at that point. It meant I could be in charge of making something actually happen and putting on productions.”

“You wanted to be in control of your own destiny?”

“Yes.”

“So, you organise the Musical Comedy Awards annually but, the rest of the time, you are…?”

“An assistant agent. I’ve been with Hollie Ebdon for almost two years now. I used to work in corporate property, but I gave that up because it was horrible. Have you ever worked in corporate property?

“No…. Anyway, you decided you wanted to be master or mistress of your own destiny so, after having a third of your intestines out and deciding not to be an actress, you went into corporate property?”

“No. I went into theatre administration and then got accidentally found and offered a job by a cool and fun property company but then they got capital investment and it all started turning a bit horrible. Then Hollie’s thing came up and she was the first person who had given the MCAs an opportunity because she had been doing the booking for the Wilmington Arms in Rosebery Avenue where we did jam-packed musical comedy days with people like Abandoman. That was in 2010.”

“You said earlier that, when you started, you knew nothing about comedy.”

“Well, when I finished at London Metropolitan University, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe and worked with Bound & Gagged for the summer, like I said, and someone had to explain to me who Stewart Lee and Nicholas Parsons were. I really didn’t know anything about comedy.

“Then I went and got a job at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, tearing tickets. Through that, I met Tracey Collins – Tina Turner, Tea Lady – and Charlie, who helps with the MCAs.  And this year we are magically ending up back there because there was a delay with the Underbelly. So, after ten years of not working at the Lyric, we’ve all ended up doing the Musical Comedy Awards Finals there this coming Monday.”

Everyone’s back at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, this year

“That is fairly weird,” I said.

“Yes. And then Ed Chappel found this bit of paper – an obituary for his great-great uncle, who was a famous actor in the early 20th century – and his great-great uncle’s first West End production was Of Mice and Men at the Lyric Theatre.”

“So you’ve been doing the Musical Comedy Awards for eight years. Getting bored?”

“I love the variety. Musical comedians are a mixture. You get people who are basically comedians but who can play a bit of music. Then you’ve got cabaret people. Then actors who are all-rounder triple-threats: acting/singing/dancing.”

“Is it easier,” I asked, “to hide weak material if you are a musical comedian? Take (I named an act). Their material is OK but their personality is so overwhelming you almost don’t notice some of their material is weak.”

“But isn’t that the same with stand-up comics?” Tamara suggested. “It’s all in the balance. If you had someone else doing Stewart Lee’s material, it wouldn’t be as good without his stage charisma and timing. In some ways, yes, musical comedy is easier because you do have a kind of energy level that comes with playing the musical instrument, but it is harder as well because you have a lot more balls to juggle and make it click and work and get the audience to buy it.”

“There are no real musical comedy shows on TV,” I prompted.

“I think,” Tamara responded, “that a musical comedy show would work well on TV, but I don’t think they want to take a risk.”

“Maybe because it sounds expensive ,” I suggested. “Like putting on 42nd Street.”

“But,” said Tamara, “it can be very cheap. It’s usually just a… well, a white guy in his early 30s with a guitar. People get musical comedy and musicals mixed up.”

“You still have no urge to pluck a ukulele yourself?”

“No. I’m almost tone deaf. I can’t sing in tune. I can appreciate music but I can’t do it myself. I used to play the saxophone. I wasn’t too bad but it did give me an awful rash on my bottom lip and you don’t want a rash on your lips when you’re a teenager. And it is almost impossible to do musical comedy if you have something in your mouth.”

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A meeting in a sex shop led me to tea with actor William Sebag-Montefiore.

Hell and a meeting in a sex shop brought me together with William Sebag-Montefiore.

In January last year, I wrote a blog about the shooting of a sitcom pilot called Hell, set in a sex shop.

Well, OK, it was a film set pretending to be a sex shop.

The would-be TV sitcom pilot was eventually re-titled Whipped, posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing this, has had over 365,000 hits. Another result was that, last week, I had tea at the Soho Theatre Bar with William Sebag-Montefiore. He had acted in the film.

I figured: He must be related to British historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore. How many Sebag-Montefiores can there be around? And Wikipedia said Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s great-great-uncle was an international financier who worked with the Rothschild family.

I thought: I might get a free cup of tea out of this.

And I did… but…

William told me: “We’re not really that related. Simon Sebag-Montefiore is my cousin twice removed. I have a name that sounds like I have connections but, in reality, I don’t. I was brought up in Leeds. My mum is Scottish; my dad is Canadian. My grandma is from Inchinnan in Glasgow.”

“Have you got siblings?” I asked.

“Two younger sisters. One’s at the University of Essex studying International Relations. The other is a nurse. So she saves people’s lives and I run around pretending to be someone else.”

“Are there other thespians in the family?”

“My dad’s a clinical oncologist and my mum is a Special Needs Assistant.”

“So no thespian tendencies?” I asked.

“When dad was at medical school,” William proffered, “he did all the comedy revues and used to sing a song called Praise The Colo-rectal Surgeon. And mum loved Billy Connolly.”

“Do you have any medical tendencies?” I asked.

“Well, when I was 17 and started working in a bar, I thought about being a paramedic. It might have been because I watched Casualty on TV when I was a kid. Maybe I just want to be in Casualty. In fact, I still do.”

“You wanted to be an actor?” I asked.

“I am an actor,” William said. “I did a year’s Masters at the Central School of Speech and Drama.”

“Acting is easy, isn’t it?” I asked. “You just have to pretend to be somebody else.”

“I was doing an hour-long one-man show,” said William, “which was a terrifying experience. An hour of me talking and it was not comedy. It was a play about a man made out of newspaper: The Inevitable Disappearance of Edward J Neverwhere, written by a gentleman called Igor Memic.”

“Surely,” I suggested, “doing an hour acting as someone else is not as terrifying as doing an hour of stand-up comedy as yourself?”

William with a hot tea sheath and a crushed Kit-Kat wrapper in London’s Soho Theatre Bar

“I haven’t done stand-up,” said William, “because of the autobiographical angle. I can’t find a way of expressing myself through it, because I would be doing an imitation of someone like Stewart Lee – and a poor one.”

“But you could always be a character comedian?” I suggested.

“I think the problem,” said William, “is more that there’s an hour of responsibility on me. The reason I like acting is because I like listening and responding. When I like watching actors on stage, it’s when they’re listening and reacting. When it’s live, it has to change all the time and, when there is another person there, if you lose focus for a second, the likelihood is they will stay focussed and bring you back in. But, if you are on your own…

“We were doing that terrifying one-man show in a listed building in Peckham – as part of The BasicSpace Festival – and somebody with four dogs knocked on the door saying: Someone told me I could watch the show.

Somebody with four dogs knocked…

“He was just a bit of a local oddball. I stood there, looked at him and thought: I have to acknowledge it. So I looked over at the door, looked back and had no idea where I was in the script. There is that responsibility of focus and continuation…”

“Now you are doing sketch comedy,” I said. “You seem very trendy. Sketch comedy is out of fashion, isn’t it? What’s the attraction?”

“I just think it’s silly and it’s fun. The thing that really made me love it was radio sketch comedy –  John Finnemore and his Souvenir radio programme.

“I tried to write a sketch when I was about 10 or 11 which was directly copied from a Harry Enfield sketch about someone coming round to rob a house but they were like a door-to-door salesman.

“And I did a lot of improvisation and sketch comedy at Newcastle University. I studied English Literature, then graduated from Central and went into this industry where I thought: Everyone will want me for everything and I’ll be in a Hollywood film in a year… But people soon told me: Ah! That’s not how it works and now TV only makes sitcoms with established comedians.”

“Do you consider yourself,” I asked, “to be an actor or a comedy performer?”

“I am an actor who does comedy. People have put me more in the comedy bracket which is great, because that’s the stuff I like to create.”

“And.” I said, “you are now forced to have tea with me to plug the show you are doing at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London on 7th and 8th April – Just These, Please. Will it make your fortune?”

Just These, Please foursome together – (L-R) Georgie Jones, William Sebag-Montefiore, Philippa Carson & Tom Dickson

“We won’t make money out of the show. It’s for love of the form and wanting to get our name out there. We are a comedy sketch group, but we are all writing sitcoms and stuff and having pipedreams. There’s this hope that we will be so endearing and hilarious that people will think: We need to put these guys everywhere.”

“You’re a foursome.”

“Yes. Tom Dickson and I met at Newcastle University, in a play where we were brothers with exceptionally questionable Irish accents. Now he is a trainee lawyer, so he has a real career in him. It was revealed to us that our Irish accents were questionable by one of the girls in our troupe: Philippa Carson, who’s intimidatingly talented – an award-winning film editor and actress. She went to film school; she’s an improviser. And Georgie Jones is our other member – she’s a member of the National Youth Theatre and in the poetry collective at the Roundhouse Theatre. Fundamentally, they’re just hilarious women and very talented actresses.

Just These, Please at Canal Cafe Theatre

“The group has, technically, been going for about two years. We did one show with about 30 sketches about two years ago but then did nothing. We filmed some sketches but haven’t yet released them. Since last October, we’ve written 60 new sketches for this one.”

“So is the future going to be YouTube?” I asked.

“I think so. We have about four sketches – our longest one runs maybe 5 or 6 minutes – filmed and we are waiting to find the right time to release them.”

“Which is?”

“Exactly. This is the problem with a bunch of creatives trying to do the business side of it. I would say around the summer time.

“I’m also a member of an improv group called Very Serious People who have a monthly residency at the Bridewell Theatre near Blackfriars. Maybe I like doing too many things.”

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