Interview: Michelle Payne, The Staff Room

They’re teaching our children, but are they teaching the right things…?

Michelle Payne’s The Staff Room started life as a 15-minute piece, written for an Actor Awareness scratch night. Now a one-act play, the show is all set for its first Edinburgh preview tomorrow at The Bunker, followed by a second at Barons Court Theatre on Saturday, before heading to the Fringe.

The Staff Room follows three young teachers on their breaks through an academic year,” Michelle explains. “You can expect to see a slice of life; an insight into what our teachers get up to in state schools.”

The play was inspired by Michelle’s own experience as a freelance dance teacher. “I was working in a lot of different schools for a really long time, so I sat in a lot of staff rooms,” she says. “I found the dynamics really interesting, and often very comical. I wanted to praise our hard working, state school teachers and give them an up to date voice in the theatre!”

While the play is a must for anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on behind the staffroom door (which, let’s be honest, is all of us when we were at school), Michelle hopes it’ll also be enjoyed by those within the profession: “Definitely teachers! And I also hope it appeals to young, working class people. Hopefully it’ll make our audiences laugh, and provoke discussion about political topics.”

Joining The Staff Room‘s all female creative team are cast members Faye Derham, Hilary Murnane and Craig Webb – who audiences might recognise from a recent high-profile TV appearance. Michelle explains, “Craig, who plays our Geography teacher Hugo, was a finalist singing with Neon Panda on Gary Barlow’s Let it Shine on BBC One. Which was very exciting for us – seeing him on the telly!”

The Actor Awareness campaign, founded by Tom Stocks, has played a key role in the play’s development. “I wrote the first draft of the play especially for an Actor Awareness health themed scratch night,” says Michelle. “This was chosen and performed at Theatre N16 last year. From this we were offered a full show at N16 if I could extend the play to one act for the summer. So Actor Awareness definitely supplied me with that initial opportunity!”

Following the show’s two London previews, Michelle and the team will be heading north for a run at Edinburgh’s theSpace @ Surgeons Hall from 21st-26th August. “I’ve visited the Fringe every year for the past six years and have supported friends’ shows, so I’m glad it’s finally my turn to have a show up there!” she says. “We’re looking forward to getting some feedback and hopefully making people laugh.”

Catch The Staff Room at The Bunker on 18th July, Barons Court Theatre on 22nd July or in Edinburgh at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 21st-26th August.

Interview: Louise Reay, Hard Mode

For anyone who’s ever wondered what it’s like to live under an authoritarian regime, Louise Reay’s new immersive comedy show Hard Mode offers a unique opportunity to find out. Based on a dialogue with Ai Weiwei in which he described his experiences of oppression, innovative satire Hard Mode will explore censorship and surveillance in Edinburgh this summer.

“If you go and see a show or a football match in China, they have members of the police or the army in between the stage/pitch and the audience,” explains Louise, who studied Modern and Classical Chinese at SOAS before embarking on a career as a documentary maker for the BBC and Channel 4. “For example when I went to Beijing Pop Festival, they were in between the crowd and performers like Ian Brown from the Stone Roses. Really odd-sounding, isn’t it? If you go and see a football match in China, when a team scores a goal and the footie fans stand up to cheer, the army watching the audience suppresses the crowd. My show features a cast of masked police standing watching the audience at all times to try to recreate this experience.”

This unsettling presence means Louise is frequently as surprised as her audience by how the show unfolds. “I genuinely never know what will happen each time I do this show,” she says. “Sometimes people find it really funny when a policeman takes them away, sometimes they do not. I cannot control the police in my show and am also at their mercy. I’ve tried to build a show based on the feeling of a glass smashing in a room – suddenly everyone is alert and anything could happen. It’s different every time, and can never be repeated. Come and be part of a genuine experiment, the boundaries are moving every day.

“Ultimately, I think comedy is based on surprise; we expect to laugh at a comedy show but we never know when exactly the laughter will come. I think for hour-long shows some people manage to elevate comedy from a craft into an art, and I personally think they do this by bearing their souls somehow, or giving as much of themselves as possible. Probably, all of the best art is soulful somehow – haven’t you seen Sister Act II? Clichés aside, it’s not without good reason that some of the best shows are based upon ‘dead dads’.”

While the show’s billed for anyone over 16, its creator has a particular ideal demographic in mind: “My show is particularly targeting handsome men between the ages of 29 and 36 with a spare Eurostar ticket to Paris up for grabs. Also people interested in politics, current affairs, the general state of the world… that seems to be more people than ever in the current climate, doesn’t it? And those looking for experimental comedy shows, of course.”

Louise is no stranger to the Fringe, having won critical acclaim and award nominations for her previous two shows, It’s Only Words and Que Sera, 些拉. This year, she’s most looking forward to performing at Edinburgh’s world famous comedy club, The Stand. “They have so many interesting and political shows there, I’m really hoping the audiences there will go for my show too. I’ll have to desperately exit flyer my heroes’ shows there like Oliver Twist meets Delboy.

“As for other Fringe highlights, there’s a very brilliant physical comedy show by Nathan Lang coming this year called The Stuntman, you really have to check it out!”

Catch Louise Reay: Hard Mode at The Stand Comedy Club, Stand 4 (venue 12), 3rd-27th (not 14th) August at 5.55pm.

Interview: Rhys Bevan, Laughing Stock

Rhys Bevan is a founding member of Laughing Stock Comedy, along with Arabella Gibbins, Lewis Doherty and Phoebe Higson. Next month they’ll be heading to Edinburgh for the third time, where they’re hoping to follow up their two previous five-star shows with another hit.

“Ours is a sketch show about the people that you meet everyday, the wonderful weirdos you see all the time,” says Rhys. “The show is set at a Caravan Club, a place of leisure and oddity cut off from the technology and cynicism of the big city. So that’s a big part of the show, a need to escape the city and to express yourself in a more basic way.

“Also, it’s just like our last two shows in that – hopefully – the audience won’t know what’s going to happen next. There’ll be music, dance, mime, and song all interwoven throughout the show. All sorts of weird and interesting ways of telling a story.”

The four friends founded Laughing Stock Comedy when they left drama school. “It was our combined ambition to get out there and perform as much and as often as possible. And we all loved comedy,” Rhys explains. “Our aim has always, first and foremost, been to make people laugh. But in recent years we’ve found that we also have the ability to tell more nuanced stories; stories with a bit more heart to them. And if you can make people laugh and feel something, you might as well.

“There are messages in there if you’d like to find them – but it’s certainly not serious. And we’re not going to tell you what it is. We just write what we know, and because we’re all of a similar age, and live similar lifestyles, our concerns and worries and insecurities embed themselves in the show every year. It’s cathartic in a way.”

Photo credit: Chloe Wicks

Over the last few years, the Laughing Stock team have developed a tried and tested formula for success. “We spend six months daydreaming. Three months daydreaming about writing some of it down. Two months frantically writing, performing, re-writing, performing again, devising, plotting, writing, hair-tearing, writing… and then one month performing a PERFECT show. Right? It seems to work.”

Away from Laughing Stock, all four are established actors. “You’ve probably seen us in an advert somewhere!” says Rhys. “Phoebe performs regularly with The Gin Chronicles, an excellent comedy where they perform a 1950s staged radio-play. It’s brilliant and unique. Bella is a singer/songwriter, Lewis was in Hood Documentary on BBC3 and I’m Toby Fairbrother on The Archers.

As for their comedy influences, they’re pretty varied. “I think we all have slightly different influences. Phoebe and Bella are big Smack the Pony girls, as well as The Fast Show and French & Saunders. Lewis is League of Gentlemen, Harry & Paul and darker stuff like Saxondale or 15 Storeys High. And I’m probably Big Train, Partridge, The Thick of It, Green WingProbably too many to name…”

As they head to the Fringe for a third time, Rhys reflects on what makes performing in Edinburgh such a unique experience. “You just cannot even begin to comprehend the amount of shows on every day of the Fringe. And the totally bonkers variety of it all is staggering. It’s like being on sensory overload for a month. It’s brilliant. But it does also take a toll on your bank balance, waistline and sanity.

“One of our highlights will always be… Due to various bits of disorganisation in our first year, I had to pull an all-nighter to fly back to Birmingham to record an episode of The Archers. In the meantime, the rest of the group were soldiering on using an audience member instead of me. When I touched down in Edinburgh slightly earlier than I’d anticipated, I decided to barrel into the show for the last sketch. The audience, having never seen me before, thought I was an intruder. Which sort of worked…?”

Catch Laughing Stock at Underbelly, Cowgate from 3rd-27th August at 4.20pm.

Interview: Kat Bond, Loo Roll

Actress, writer, comedian and clown Kat Bond is stocking up on loo rolls in preparation for the debut of her first solo character comedy show at Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard next month. “Kat Bond: Loo Roll is a character comedy show about a woman trying to find her family who left her in a bin,” she explains. “There are interactive Loo Roll props, human size bins and colourful characters to boot.”

The show began as an idea on the way to the Leicester Comedy Festival: “I thought that it would be good to make a show where every prop is made out of Loo Roll. I had a cold at the time!” says Kat. “I was in a short film about a female cult, and played a character called Pat who didn’t have a family; she was a sad clown and I thought it would be fun to bring her to life.”

In addition to her extensive work in theatre and TV, Kat is also half of critically acclaimed comedy duo That Pair, and won the Vault Festival Comedy Award 2017 for Loo Roll – so it’s fair to say she knows a bit about being funny. “I would say for me comedy is about being relaxed, so a good dollop of preparation; getting the audience to trust you, so a half pint of listening to them; being present in the room is important, so a full litre of sleep with a sprinkle of insanity. I think this is a comedy smoothie.

“Loud laughers are who I’m targeting, of any age,” she adds. “I think there’s a universal sentiment to the show and so I hope all adults from 16 onwards would like it. How many other shows have a full size bin on stage and use 50 loo rolls a show? I like to think that my show is original, funny and heartwarming, so people should come if they like those three things.”

Kat’s looking forward to being part of the Fringe 2017: “I love performing everyday and seeing the show change and evolve. It’s the only routine I get all year. Seeing some beautiful, funny, awful shows is always a thrill. I feel very inspired after leaving. After I’ve slept, that is.

“I’m excited to see lots of great theatre at Summerhall. Comedy-wise – Spencer Jones, Tessa Coates and Lorna Shaw, James Rowland, Adam Riches, John Kearns… it’s a long list, but pop me on yours if you use Loo Roll!”

Catch Kat Bond: Loo Roll at the Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) from 2nd-28th August (not 16th) at 5.45pm.

Interview: Abi Roberts, Anglichanka

Stand-up comedian Abi Roberts has the honour of being the first UK comic to perform in Russia… in Russian. In her show Anglichanka – which means Englishwoman in Russian – she talks about living in the former Soviet Union in the 90s, and returning after 18 years to perform.

“I speak Russian, I studied opera there in the mid 90s and I come from a family of Russian speakers,” she explains. “I’m a pro stand-up now and I was approached after a gig in 2016 and asked to go to Moscow to do four nights at the only stand-up comedy club on Moscow. The inspiration for the show was going back there and seeing just how much it’s changed since I had to leave in a hurry in 1993.

“So in this show, I discuss my time in the former USSR, gay rights and censorship in modern Russia, the consequences of drinking hardcore vodka, studying opera, using outdoor loos in -20 temperatures, and a dog that uses a human loo. You’ll see how Russia has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union and discover what we need to know about Putin, the meerkat with nuclear weapons and the country described as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.”

Photo credit: Karla Gowlett

Abi’s found her show attracts very diverse audiences. “I wrote it as a comedy show, so primarily its targeted at stand-up comedy fans… fans of funny,” she says. “I do get a lot of Russian speakers, Eastern Europeans and politicos in the audience – but then since the show’s been on tour, I’ve played diverse audiences from Glasgow to Barnstaple, via Neath and Newcastle, and the variation in audiences is enormous! I get students in, millennials, older 65-plus people who remember the Cold War, and people of all shapes and sizes. I have developed a wee following from both previous shows and club stuff, so people come and see it because they know it’s going to be me doing a funny show, not a piece of performance art or a TED lecture.”

Abi believes the secret to good comedy is jokes, being funny and working a room: “I see too many shows labelled as ‘comedy’ and too many people labelling themselves as ‘comedians’ nowadays that are neither. You’re not a comedian if you don’t play comedy clubs as a pro comic on a regular basis, however much you tell yourself you are. And if your show is one of the aforementioned pieces of performance art, theatre, a lecture, a pep rally or a TED talk, then it ain’t comedy. People come to comedy shows to laugh and be entertained…that’s the primary purpose of a comedian: to make people laugh. If I make them think about something more deeply along the way, then that’s great. But my primary job is to get folks laughing.

“In terms of individual comedians – well, there are two routes into comedy. One is doing it the hard way great comedians do, working their way up in comedy clubs and venues. The other way is doing it via the medium of comedy competitions. Comedy is not a competition. Competitions do not make you a funny stand-up or a great stand-up…they just make you good at doing competitions. My aim is, and always will be, to be the best stand-up I possibly can. I’m really not bothered about being famous or on TV. If that happens, great. I’m very happy making 500 people laugh every Friday and Saturday.”

Abi will be performing Anglichanka at Edinburgh’s Underbelly Cowgate in August – and is keen for festival-goers to check out her acclaimed and unique show. “It’s very funny, you’ll leave my show uplifted and laughing, not depressed and wondering why you just wasted the last hour,” she promises. “It also contains Stalin, Hyacinth Bucket, a shitting dog and a finale that has been described as ‘absolutely not to be missed’. So come along and see why this show has been pretty much given 5 star ratings across the board!”

It’s not the show’s first Edinburgh outing, though, and Abi’s excited by the opportunity to share it with more people this summer. “I did a first version of it last year on the Free Fringe to a smaller audience, and it got such good reactions from critics and audiences alike that I knew I had to bring it back. Then I got an offer to bring it to the famous Underbelly Cowgate, so here I am! It’s also the anniversary of the Russian revolution this year, so it couldn’t be more timely. Scotland has very strong historic links with Russia, especially Edinburgh, and there’s a big Russian presence in Scotland, so that adds an extra dimension for me.”

She also hopes to find time to see some of the other comedy talent at the Fringe this year. “I’m doing two shows – Anglichanka and a very early stage work-in-progress show called Fat Girl Dancing, so my time is limited, but if I can, I want to see fellow Underbelly stable mates Paul Foot, Jason Manford and John Bishop, who all have shows in the Underbelly. I never get to see as many shows as I’d like to due to sheer exhaustion – the first week is pure slog, the second week you’re recovering from the first and by the third week, you just want to do you show, go back to your flat, eat crisps and go to bed!” 

See Abi perform Anglichanka at Underbelly Cowgate (White Belly) at 6.40pm from 3rd-27th (not 14th) August.