I have done quite a few crazy things on stage and television over the years. I’ve performed a safer sex show for gay men on Hampstead Heath at midnight, and convinced audiences across the globe that I was kidnapped by Mama Cass. I’ve set an American flag alight, and appeared as a fat version of Posh Spice. I’ve even had sex with a cake – all in the name of art, of course.
I recently put the video of my cake sex performance on YouTube. My mother stalks me online, and tracked it down. She was shocked and horrified, which I found strange. In my mind it seemed totally OK and kind of normal to have sex with a cake. Then I realised her taste in performance is more Les Mis than Miss Mess. Let’s just say she didn’t share the link on her Facebook page.
As a performer, if you don’t push the boundaries of art, taste and comfort, then you might as well go and work at the RSC. Traditional theatre is safe, cosy and comforting; fine for a midweek matinee on a coach trip from the Home Counties, but I rarely find it life changing. Yeah, I’ve seen lots at the National, much of it very good. But it doesn’t get me very excited.
On the opposite side of the performance spectrum, there’s a cabaret culture of “risqué” which I find equally bland and boring. Any publicity that tells me I’ll be titillated, teased and shocked… well, you can guarantee I’ll be the one snoring in the stalls. Burlesque and cabaret presents itself as risky and saucy, but how many faux-drunken European accented ‘sexy’ shows can one watch? One day Edith Piaf is going to rise from the dead as a zombie cabaret star and strangle her modern imitators… then we’ll all be free.
I prefer to see and make shows inspired by clubs, gigs and parties. It’s where real life in all its messiness and brilliance happens. My latest solo show, Unhappy Birthday, combines all three of these elements.
Unhappy Birthday explores the extremities of pop fandom. The show takes the form of a birthday party, and I’ve invited my all time favourite singer, Morrissey. While we wait for him to turn up, we play pass the parcel and crazy stuff happens, with a backdrop set list of Smiths and Morrissey tunes. There’s lots of dancing, snogging and beer – and that’s just the audience. I channel my inner teenager for this show; it is such an extreme, concentrated version of myself. The emotions, attractions, and passions we feel as teenagers are so powerful and silly. I love that. Unhappy Birthday is a reminder of the joy and embarrassment of being a teen.
I wanted to really push myself with Unhappy Birthday. Bringing in Scottee as my director was a move towards more challenging physicality. He is fat like me, and I knew he’d instinctively understand the challenges – and fun – of having a big body. My main goal was to create a visceral show that thrust me beyond my performance boundaries… scary and exciting!
It was a tough challenge, because most days I’d rather sit on the sofa with a cup of coffee and watch reruns of The Great British Bake Off. Scottee encouraged me throw myself around the rehearsal room like an idiot. I wasn’t sure if I’d succeed, fail or die trying. But if performers don’t push themselves – or have directors who share their vision, then audiences get bored… and that’s a one way ticket to an Equity retirement home.
While performing Unhappy Birthday, I’ve fallen flat on my face, sat on an audience member and collapsed the chair, and groped nearly a hundred strangers. It’s not Shakespeare, and it’s not been directed by Nicholas Hytner. Unhappy Birthday doesn’t star Dame Judi Dench and Andrew Lloyd Webber hasn’t written the score. I don’t wear a corset, and there’s not a bowler hat in sight, either. Sorry. But you should come and see it anyway. You just might enjoy yourself.
Unhappy Birthday plays at the Camden People’s Theatre from 14 May – 1 Jun. For information and tickets, see the CPT website.