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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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Filed under Burlesque, Performance, Sex, Theatre

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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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, Music, Theatre

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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Filed under Acting, Comedy, Theatre

BREAK A LEG! (a showbiz suggestion taken too far) – Matt Roper in New York

I’ll Say She Is

Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning

Bleary-eyed but still smiling Matt Roper, early this morning

This morning, I was supposed to Skype English performer Matt Roper in New York at 0630 UK time (0130 New York time) to talk about the first off-Broadway preview night of I’ll Say She Is, the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers show in which he plays Chico.

Matt was not online at 0630.

At 0641 UK, I got an e-mail – “John! Problems this end! We’re at the theatre. Disaster tonight! – The ‘butler’ in the show fell and we had to dial an ambulance! I’ll be home in an hour (3am)!”

We eventually talked at 08.30 UK / 03.30 New York time.

“You look bleary-eyed,” I said.

“It’s the middle of a heat wave,” Matt told me. It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32C) today. It’s nearly four in the morning now and it’s 76 degrees (24C) outside!”

“What happened to the butler?” I asked.

“You’ve seen the Marx Bros films,” said Matt. “The dowager character played by Margaret Dumont has a sort of butler/footman. He broke his leg.”

“Oh, wonderful!” I said with genuine enthusiasm, thinking of the publicity potential.

“Your Satanic grin!” said Matt. “You’re loving this, John, aren’t you?”

“Well,” I admitted. “That old theatrical good-luck wish – Break a leg! – he really did take it too literally – and on the first preview night!”

(Top to bottom; L-R - (Photo by Mark X Hopkins)) Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo

(Top to bottom; L-R – Photo by Mark X Hopkins)
Matt Walters as Zeppo, Noah Diamond as Groucho, Matt Roper as Chico, and Seth Sheldon as Harpo

“I think,” said Matt, “it was when he was going off stage, coming down a step. Something like that. He slipped. It’s a big loss, because a lot of his sequences are with Harpo, because Harpo is the one who is stealing all the family silverware. We have a good understudy, but we’re going to miss this guy because his comic timing is brilliant.”

“How long will it take to mend?” I asked.

“I don’t know. The ambulance came and he was whisked away. He might be able to perform on opening night at the Connelly Theater on Thursday on crutches: we might be able to work that into the show.”

“So what,” I asked, “other than people breaking their legs, has been the most difficult thing for you?”

“Learning to play the piano for the last eight weeks. Chico had such a particular style of playing.”

“All the funny hand movements,” I agreed. “Could you play the piano ‘normally’ before?”

“A little bit. Obviously, for my Wilfredo act, I sing and write music but, when the Chico’s hands start going, that’s something completely different. If you hit the wrong key on a piano, it’s invasive, right? But it went fine tonight.”

Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary

Les Dawson: comedian & piano player extraordinary

“If you can play the piano to begin with,” I said, “it must be really difficult to play oddly. It must have been really difficult for Les Dawson to play off-key because he could actually play properly.”

“Yes,” agreed Matt (whose father George Roper was one of Granada TV’s legendary 1970s Northern Comedians) “because Les was a very accomplished pianist. I mean, before he became famous, he was making money as a pianist. He spent months in a brothel in Paris playing piano.”

“He did?” I asked.

“Yeah. I mean, Les Dawson had this great ambition to become a poet and a novelist but, back in the 1940s and 1950s, because of his working class background, he felt he couldn’t, so he ended up making a living playing piano in all sorts of places.”

“Anyway,” I said, “back to the Marx Bros.”

I’ll Say She Is website

Premiering on Thursday off-Broadway

“Well I’ll Say She Is,” said Matt, “pre-dates musical theatre as we know it. It pre-dates Show Boat. It’s a revue, really. This is the show that really made the Marx Bros. It got them off the vaudeville circuit. They had been ready to give up. They had had enough by 1923/1924. They had been going for about 15 years and had made a lot of enemies on the vaudeville circuit.”

“So it’s more of a revue than a story?” I asked.

“It has a very loose plot, which may be why it was never made into a film. It’s a series of sketches, really, with a lot of music and the chorus girls and so on. But it does have a plot. The niece of the Margaret Dumont character is a high society girl on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and there is a sequence in the show called Cinderella Backwards. She longs to be poor and in the gutter and experiencing the gritty side of life.”

“How did you,” I asked, “an Englishman, get the part of a New York Jew playing an Italian-American?”

“I was doing a gig at a supper club called Pangea, on the bill with Sabrina Chap, a singer-songwriter, and we just got chatting and she said: I’m musical directing this Marx Bros musical. We have still to cast Zeppo and Chico. So I sent an e-mail to the producers and they said: It’s funny you should write, because we have heard about you through other people. Why don’t you come in and read for us? That’s how. Just circumstance.

“Chico,” I suggested, “is possibly not as interesting as Groucho and Harpo?”

Chico Marx - interestingly naughty man

Chico Marx – interestingly naughty man

“No,” Matt disagreed, “he is very interesting. The story goes that, as a young boy, in this great immigrant city of New York, he used to defend himself from gangs by adopting accents. There were anti-Semitic attacks and so on. If he ran into an Irish gang in the Lower East Side, he would pretend to be Irish. If he ran into a gang of Italians, he would pretend to be Italian. And that was how his Italian persona developed from a young age.

“And he was a compulsive gambler. He lost ALL of his money in crap games and poker. The Marx Bros movie A Night in Casablanca was made specifically so that Chico had some money to live off.

“Somebody once asked him How much money do you think you’ve lost gambling? and his reply was Ask Harpo how much money he has made and that’s how much I’ve lost. If he saw a drop of rain on a pane of glass, he would bet on which direction the drop would run down. He was a naughty, naughty boy.”

“He was called Chico,” I said, “because he was a womaniser?”

“Yes. His wife actually spied on him and caught him with a chorus girl and his response was: I wasn’t kissing her, I was only whispering in her mouth.”

“I had better let you get to sleep,” I told Matt.

I did not say Break a leg.

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We Are Thomasse. They are talented.

Yesterday’s blog was taken from a conversation I had over a month ago because ironically, when I stopped posting daily blogs, I still had the same or worse amount of time free. Today’s is the same.

We Are Thomasse at the Museum of Comedy

We Are Thomasse were at the Museum of Comedy last month

Over a month ago, I saw American-based comedy sketch duo We Are Thomasse at the Museum of Comedy in London. They flew in on the Thursday, did the show on Friday, attended a wedding on Saturday (their real reason for flying over) and flew out on Sunday.

We Are Thomasse are British-born Nick Afka Thomas and US-born Sarah Ann Masse (Thomas + Masse = Thomasse).

“So,” I said to Sarah at the Museum of Comedy after the show, “You were living and working in New York and your manager was in LA And now you are moving to LA for the pitch season?”

“Yeah. Our manager had us go out. We went out to Los Angeles four times last year. We went on a whim to a sketch festival and really had a good time and decided to go back. In LA, it’s a theatre called iO West and they said any time were back in town they’d put us on their main stage, which they did.

“It’s really nice to have a place to perform every month. We had a monthly show in New York for a year at the PIT – the People’s Improv Theatre.”

“And,” I asked, “you post regular online stuff?”

“Yes. On our YouTube channel. We do the online sketches every fortnight. We filmed a lot between June and September last year and then a few in December and January and we’re now releasing them every two weeks.”

“How did the two of you meet?” I asked.

“Through a mutual friend. The only thing I knew about Nick when I met him was that he was a maths tutor and wrote books about Sudoku. He came second in the National Sudoku Championships. I had no idea he was an actor and writer.

“We just got on really well and he moved back to London; but I was in New York. So we spent the next five months typing to each other online every day. We started writing together then. Then he came back out to New York to do a play with me.”

I was talking to Sarah alone. Nick was schmoozing the rest of the room.

“He’s very well-spoken,” I said.

“Though,” said Sarah, “every now and then an Estuary sound comes out of his quaint, posh accent. He was born in Peterborough and grew up between England and Switzerland – because his dad got a job there and…”

“I thought you were going to say he went to finishing school there!” I told her.

“No, he went to Eton,” she told me.

“Well then,” I said, “he’s only one step away from getting some superhero lead in a Marvel film…”

“And later,” added Sarah, “he was back there teaching at Eton.”

Trans-Atlantic opposites attract - We Are Thomasse

Trans-Atlantic opposites attract, complement and compliment

A few days after this conversation, Nick e-mailed me:

“When I was talking to Sarah about how much you already knew about me, I realized that she hadn’t been filling you in on her own credits, so you must not have heard about what an interesting life she’s had. It’s totally different from mine, which keeps in line with our ‘opposites attract’ thing: husband-wife, British-American etc.

“Whereas I was at a fancy school and university, Sarah was home-schooled from the age of 11 and made the decision that she didn’t want to go to university at all (saving thousands and thousands in pointless debt). She began auditioning professionally at 18, did the famous (at least famous in the US) Williamstown Theater Festival two years in a row and started her own highly-acclaimed theatre company when she was 21… I didn’t even get out of drama school until I was 23! I have to be honest: Sarah is responsible for a majority of those punchlines in the show.

“It’s a shame we don’t yet do songs, since her singing voice is absolutely breathtaking – She used to be a musical theatre actress, working with some pretty big names. We haven’t figured out how to incorporate that yet, but hopefully one day we’ll begin to have a musical side.”

Now, flashing back to my chat with Sarah at the Museum of Comedy:

“Working together,” I suggested, “is often not a good idea if you are a couple.””

“Well, we started working and writing together before we started dating. In the five months that we were not dating – just talking online – we started writing characters for what would become a web series. Nick always wanted to do sketches and a sketch show.

“Eventually we got round to doing a few of our sketches in other people’s shows and then we applied to a festival in New York and got in and – Oh no! We’d better put a show together! – and, since then, for just over a year now, we’ve been doing a version of this show.”

At this point, Nick joined us.

We Are Thomasse drawing attention to their existence

We Are Thomasse are drawing attention to their existence

“The big thing for us at the moment,” he said, “is to draw people’s attention to the fact we even exist. There are so many YouTube channels and so many sketch people out there that how do you know what’s worth seeing?”

“Why bother with Britain at all,” I asked, “when you are doing fine based in the US?”

“We are British-American, so we want to keep that connection on both sides. We are interested in appearing in Edinburgh. I went to the Fringe a couple of times – once with the Oxford Revue and once with NewsRevue.”

“You were in NewsRevue?” I asked.

“One of the things I took from that experience,” said Nick, “was the speed of change, the pace of it. If you fly at it, even if there is a bad sketch, you are through really quickly. Sarah and I have kept our change-overs (between sketches) to about ten seconds or less. In NewsRevue, I think we were doing 4 seconds, but they had two more people to be able to do that.

“In America and in a lot of sketch shows I’ve seen in Britain, the gap between sketches can be so long that the energy that has been built up just gets dissipated. That was a big thing with us from the start, which is one of the reasons why we do all our changes on the stage.”

“So your career will be sketch shows for ever more?” I asked.

“We are talking to a director,” Nick replied, “about doing a play where the two of us play all the characters.”

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Beth Vyse – How breast cancer turned her from an actress into a comedian

Beth Vyse, eating daffodils

Beth Vyse – showing her animal side earlier this week in Soho

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.

“Oh yes,” she told me. “I teach at LAMDA. I’ve worked at Rose Bruford, the Manchester Met – all the big Uni colleges.”

“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.

A golden-headed tamarin (Photograph by Hans Hillewaert)

A golden-headed tamarin – it screeches (Photograph by Hans Hillewaert)

“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.

Poster image for Beth Vyse Going Dark!

Poster image for one of Beth’s earlier shows – Going Dark!

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 Vyse - As funny As Cancer

Beth Vyse – the poster for As Funny As 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…”

“Yes.”

“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.”

Beth Vyse as Olive Hands

Olive Hands: “No-one would have known what it was about.”

“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.

“I might take As Funny As Cancer up again, but also a new show. I want to have Gareth Morinan in it, playing Noel Edmonds. I’m quite obsessed with Deal or No Deal. It makes me cry!”

“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.

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Comedy and variety in Bethnal Green + crime, stripping and porn films in Rome

Rich Rose (left, without shirt) and Gareth Ellis (right, in dress) last night

Rose (left, without shirt) and Ellis (right, in dress) last night

Things are on the up. There seem to be a rising number of comedy clubs in London which are not just putting on very samey bills of 5-male-comics-doing-stand-up. There are several now staging genuine variety nights and filling their venues.

Among them are the highly-esteemed Pull the Other One comedy nights in Nunhead and Peckham, the occasional Spectacular Spectrum of Now shows in King’s Cross and the occasional Brainwash Comedy nights run by Ellis & Rose at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green.

I saw a Brainwash show last night, headlined by Harry Hill who, although he could be described as a straight stand-up, is considerably more weird than that.

I won’t even attempt to explain what was going on here

I won’t even attempt to explain what was going on here

Tom Ward was, I suppose, the genuine token stand-up act. Other acts on the bill were sketch trio The Birthday Girls, Neil Frost (of The Spectacular Spectrum of Now) as moustachioed Victorian ‘Gentleman Johnson’ who ended up in a boxing match with a genuinely feisty girl from the audience, Casual Violence creator James Hamilton in a double character act, Mr Susie only partially on planet Earth and Lipstick & Wax doing a standard but nonetheless astonishing magic act.

So… one stand-up, six excellent variety acts, not a dud anywhere and Ellis & Rose impressively managing to be both effective MCs and constantly anarchic in themselves.

Perhaps London comedy clubs are changing.

They certainly have to.

Joe Palermo, Italian stallion, tonight

Joe Palermo, Italian stallion, in Soho tonight

In the meantime, people are preparing potential Edinburgh Fringe shows for next year.

One of the most interesting could be Joe Palermo’s Mémoires of an Italian Stallion.

I saw an initial try-out tonight which took around 70 minutes and did not get even halfway through the story, which involves his somewhat colourful life.

From what I heard tonight and during a post-show chat at the Grouchy Club, I reckon his story might take about four hours or longer to tell – if heavily edited.

It will be interesting to see how this fits into a 55-minute Edinburgh Fringe slot. The briefest of headings would include:

  • him as a child in Italy (watching porn on TV in the back garden)
  • attempts to be a Roman teenage gigolo
  • crime and the drug trade
  • athletics
  • modelling and becoming a male stripper
  • porn movie experiences
  • encounters with ‘proper’ movie people including stories of Cinecittà, famous actors and spaghetti western people

Joe says: “The show at this stage is mainly for a male audience, however open minded women or girls are welcome.”

I told him I thought Edinburgh audiences might crucify him atop Arthur’s Seat for sexism.

But, if his Mémoires of an Italian Stallion show does make the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, it will surely be an interesting ride.

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