Beth Vyse, Naomi Paxton & Enter the Dragons on character comedy

Beth Vyse, Naomi Paxton and clowning duo Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards talk about motherhood, sisterhood and kicking ageing up the arse

Feature by Ben Venables | 30 Jul 2018
Enter the Dragon

Beth Vyse

"All Olive Hands wants," says her creator Beth Vyse, "is to be a daytime television presenter – the best daytime television presenter there is."

Just like Vyse, her feisty leopard-skin clad double has become a mother. And Olive Hands is having to make some adjustments to her outlook now she might not be the most important person in her own life.

"It's about the golden year, the first year of motherhood," says Vyse, "and how it affects you and changes you – or the hysteria of motherhood. A baby puts a different perspective on things. It makes you more focussed on what you want to do – but it also takes away your focus... because you have a baby!

"There's still a question mark over who the father is for Olive. I don't think that's been resolved yet, but I don't think it really matters to her."

Vyse thinks The Hand that Rocks the Cradle may touch a little on the tone of her most personal hour As Funny as Cancer. This sounds a delicate balance when considering the bonkers brand of surrealism required for an Olive Hands performance. But as Vyse says: "I think having a baby is the only thing that will make her come of age. I think by default she's actually a good mother – but she still wants these things, these ambitions. The show is about memories as well. And, as Beth, personally, I have this memory of performing with Sir David Jason."

Originally, her scene in A Touch of Frost included Sir David, Vyse and a baby. However, after the baby became agitated, the performance ended up being slightly more improvised than expected. Her conversation with Sir David during the filming left a deep imprint in Vyse's mind and was pivotal to her thinking about the kind of aspirations we have for our careers. "It has that memory going on through the show. When do you stop calling yourself an actor, or a comedy performer, or the greatest television presenter of all time, and just be happy once you stop striving for things. When can you just be you?"

Ada Campe

Dr Naomi Paxton is a historian who has researched, written about and even adapted lost scripts from the suffrage movement. Her alter-ego Ada Campe is a variety act performing with a psychic duck.

"Ada is a contemporary character," says Paxton. "Even though I love music hall, I'm not pretending that she's a Victorian throwback. She is very now, she has a Twitter account."

Having come 'top of the bill' at the New Act of the Year competition this year and then winning The Old Comedian of the Year at Leicester Square Theatre, Paxton now brings Ada's origin story to The Stand's New Town Theatre.

"The story starts when she is about 16 years old and she's working at a holiday camp on the Welsh coast where something happens which informs her life. The psychic duck ends up being part of that".

Ada's exuberant and eccentric character seems at odds with an academic life. And the differences being the two of them often surprises the creator: "With Ada, I've sometimes tried to make her very gay and feminist, but it didn't work out at all. She's her own beast! But I've been trying to give her a few bisexual leanings," she says, unsure how much Ada will take to this direction or if she'll beat it back. 

Before Paxton became a historian – and 'met' Ada Campe – she was an actor performing in The Vagina Monologues. With the flamboyant Ada being two decades Paxton's senior, she's found inspiration for the bi-possible aspect of her character in conversations she had with the audience after these shows. "People would often be very liberated by The Vagina Monologues. They'd tell me, in their semi-drunken state, stories of bisexual feelings they'd had in middle-age. I'm gay and they would seem to look at me and go: 'Oh, I'm going to tell you about my nearly-coming-out-story.'"

Paxton's journey into history dates back from a second-hand book she bought on suffrage plays, several of which she's since staged. She's often found comedy was used to great effect in the pieces, especially one titled Anti-Suffrage Waxworks by Cicely Hamilton, a play lost until Paxton revived it based on descriptions from the time: "They used comedy in subtle ways to release tension but also broad comedy to take the negative portrayal of suffragettes and turn it to an advantage." The waxworks were based on the entertainment of the time, and when in the play a suffragette is brought out "in chains, and is miserable, and is wearing football boots" it showed a modern eye for mocking stereotypes and thereby turning a popular perception on its head. 

As far apart as Paxton's interests and Ada Campe's performances seem, there is an intersection: "When I read about political theatre, it's for people who want to talk, and who have dreams and ideas. They see theatre as a space where they can communicate at that moment. And they've chosen to write for that space. Now, I'd never have connected that to Ada's character before, but it all comes out of the same thing."

And what is that thing?

"Let's have a moment together."

Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards – Enter the Dragons

"The show came out of our frustration about how women are represented going through the ageing process," says Abigail Dooley. "You're either Helen Mirren or a witch."

Enter the Dragons picked up the Best of the Brighton Fringe Award and its two creators – Dooley and Emma Edwards – describe its style as something like The Mighty Boosh running the Women's Institute.

On bringing the show to Pleasance Dome, Edwards says: "At the moment we're excited, but when I'm standing backstage in a fat suit and Abigail's in a sweaty wigwam, then I might think: what the hell am I doing with my life?"

Dooley and Edwards have a remarkable range of influences. Most notable is perhaps Phillipe de Gaulier, the master clown whose teachings have greatly influenced stand-up in recent years. But Dooley was part of his official entourage long before his popularity resurfaced. She was part of his show The End of the Tunnel at the Assembly Rooms in 1992. "In one way it worked brilliantly," she says, "but I don't think it was the show people expected. There was massive pressure on Gaulier and it had mixed reviews, but it was a great experience."

Dooley and Edwards' influences also owe as much to traditional double acts as clowning, especially Morecambe and Wise. "The image we have for our posters is based on those beautiful scenes where they sit in bed," says Dooley. 

In 2011, the pair won the prestigious Sitcom Mission competition, but as Edwards tells us: "We've been writing stuff together for other people for a while, but this is the first show we've written for ourselves to perform. It's a mythological quest reframed from the point of view of an older woman, and it's sort of a rallying cry about ageing – to kick it up the arse."

The mythological quest structure nods to their script writing experience. Story structure might now seem the preserve of Hollywood script doctors – and the duo have attended Robert McKee's seminars – but its roots lay in the work of anthropologist Joseph Campbell and his study of universal myth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lucas revitalised interest in 'The Hero's Journey' story structure by adapting its stages for an obscure production made at Pinewood Studios called Star Wars.

Dooley and Edwards are enjoying taking The Hero's Journey back to all the strange stuff of myth. As Edwards explains: "Our protagonist has to defeat the monster and we like the ridiculousness of being able to have crazy mythological monsters, and creatures, and wise women, and weird sisters – and all the funny characters that come out of that."

But they have great respect for the journey and story structure. "It's Ulysses really; it's anyone," says Dooley, adding: "And when you understand structure you can fuck with it."

Beth Vyse as Olive Hands: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Monkey Barrel Comedy Club (Room Two), 1-26 Aug (not 15), 3.45pm, £5/PWYW Ada Campe and the Psychic Duck, The Stand's New Town Theatre (Studio), 2-26 Aug (not 14), 2.50pm, £7-9 Enter the Dragons, Pleasance Dome (Jack Dome), 1-27 Aug (not 13), 4:10 pm, £6.50-11