Elf Lyons interview: Does Mum know best?

Multi-talented Elf Lyons is about to find out if honesty is the best policy where family relationships are concerned.

Feature by Jenni Ajderian | 29 Jul 2016
  • Elf Lyons

With a glance at Elf Lyons’ CV, it looks like she’s nearly done it all. She's written and directed plays and also rock operas for the Fringe, spent a year with Philippe Gaulier learning the fine art of theatre, a summer with Duckie’s Homosexualists re-imagining cabaret, and two Fringe festivals with stand-up shows that were the perfect combination of pleasingly niche and joyously well-received.

Right now, Lyons and her new show, Pelican, are in the getting-to-know-you phase of their relationship. “It’s like falling in love with someone when you start dating,” she says. “I’m just getting to figure out what it is.”

On paper, Pelican is a show about Lyons’ relationship with her mother – the good, the bad, the screamingly ugly – and is in some ways the most classically-themed stand-up hour she’s done so far. Underground Success, her first show, was about her obsession with the London Underground; Being Barbarella saw Lyons take inspiration from a sci-fi comic book character to discuss sex and body-confidence. In comparison, family matters could sound far easier, but this isn’t really the case.

“There’s a tradition of doing a show after someone’s passed away,” she explains, “but then you take away their opportunity to retort or talk back to you. I really want my mum to see the show and see what she thinks. It’s probably one of the most tricky shows to do about another person, especially when they are still alive. How do you do a really honest show about your relationship with your mum that doesn’t sever the relationship in the process? Comedy seems to be the only way that I can talk honestly to my mum about herself.”

Relationships with parents can get fraught at any time of life. When Lyons’ mum was in her mid-20s, she had a little Elf to look after. Now Lyons is 25, and asking questions about her own future and her mum’s past. “I’ve always described my mum as an artist – she’s an artist and she’s had kids. But through the years my mum’s not gone back to painting, and she always says to me, 'You can’t have it all, you’ve got to choose whether you want to be a comedian or whether you want to have kids.' It’s a really sad factor that for women now we still face this question.”

Put this way, wanting to ‘have it all’ almost sounds greedy. The idea that women have to choose one mask to wear for the rest of our lives is absurd, but so is the idea that we should wear all the masks and be amazing at everything.

“I get angry at my mum all the time, and it’s a proper rage: why couldn’t my mum do it all? Why couldn’t it have been her that went on to become the incredible artist, why did she have to stay at home? And you can do that, but it doesn’t really help anyone. We’ve got to stop being so judgemental towards women and their choices.”

Delving further into their relationship, then, Lyons is really asking the eternal question: ‘Will I turn into my mother?’ and also: ‘What does that even mean? Is that good, bad or neither?’ Exploring each question with stories from her own life, her mother’s life, and a few surreal asides, Lyons gets to play with a few different masks to see what fits.

“It’s not just about my relationship with my mum,” she adds, “it’s about my relationship with the future me.”

Elf Lyons: Pelican, Voodoo Rooms (French Quarter), 6-28 Aug (not 16 & 23), 7.50pm, PBH Free Fringe.