Liam Williams on his debut play Travesty

Liam Williams has taken a break from his eloquent stand-up performances to write a play about the 'ethical dimensions of modern love'

Feature by Craig Angus | 02 Aug 2016

Flashback to August 2015, and a Friday night performance of Liam Williams’ Bonfire Night sees the comedian vigorously bashing the microphone against his skull. This leaves three separate cuts of varying size across his forehead, decorating a face crimson from exertion. A fist hits the ceiling after a punchline lands imperfectly. It was a show that talked about the desire to impact the world positively vis-à-vis homelessness, climate change and inequality – and the big picture futility of those dreams. The anger made sense in that context, but was it real?

“I juggle with that too,” he says, laughing.

“Looking back on it, it was fun at times, but I was definitely dealing with the frustration quite badly in the shows, and I’m not sure what it was exactly. I put a lot of pressure on myself, I’d had a good year the year before in terms of reviews, and getting nominated for the award...

“Also because I only decided to go to the Fringe at quite late notice I had quite a small room, it was very hot and late at night."

He adds: "The circumstances for trying to repeat the success of the previous year weren’t great", saying he was unprepared having been busy with TV projects and writing Radio 4 series Ladhood – a semi-autobiographical account of his teenage years in Yorkshire: "But I was mainly just caring too much in a neurotic way."

“I’m more excited about this than anything I’ve ever done..."

This year, Williams talks enthusiastically about Travesty – his debut play – praising the cast and director Emily Burns, saying just enough to keep the intrigue alive without giving too much away.

“I’m more excited about this than anything I’ve ever done – at least at Edinburgh,” he says. “I just needed a bit of a rest from the psychological burden of having to perform...”

Last November was a difficult, and as it turns out painful, time for Williams. His sketch troupe Sheeps tweeted that the BBC hadn't opted to commission a series of People Time – after the popular pilot episode was given almost universal acclaim from peers and critics. Then, days later, he was in hospital with something called a 'Don Juan' fracture.

“I locked myself out of the flat,” he says. “I’d gone to feed my neighbour’s cat – the neighbour lives downstairs – and I had my neighbour’s keys, not my own. After I fed the cat I began thinking about how to get back in, and I’d been in the habit of climbing up the front of the house, up the masonry into my bedroom window.”

A courageous plan, but not without an obvious flaw: "I got as far as my window, and I slipped down and fell onto my feet.”

Turns out a Don Juan fracture has nothing to do with cantos or seduction. Williams had broken both of his calcareous heel bones: “I didn’t have any shoes on.”

Love, commitment and Travesty

However, the downtime proved invaluable. After three consecutive years doing solo stand-up in Edinburgh, as well as additional shows with Sheeps, Williams came up with the idea that he’d do something different. Travesty promises to give a veritable assessment of modern relationships and their myriad complications – and for its creator, it’s been a revitalising experience.

“The thematic emphasis is on love,” he says of the play, “and what love and commitment means to people my sort of age as they approach real adulthood and start planning their lives seriously. It’s quite a naturalistic play in many ways – the dialogue and the story are realistic – although hopefully funny in parts.” He says there’s a “surprise element” in the mix.

What’s striking is that conceptually Travesty sounds subtle. The issues thrown around in Bonfire Night were big-scale problems, the vastness of which confront you everyday in quite a grandiose manner. Williams spoke of polar bears suffering surrounded by melting ice caps, children from war torn countries, and the anger – and acceptance in some quarters – that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. The stuff of everyday conversation when you’re a downtrodden millennial with socialist leanings.

This year he’s dealing with ageing, the consequences of which are suspended, winding up until an inevitable and sudden release of tension. “The transition,” as he puts it, “from youthful merriment and relationships in your early twenties, messing around and trying things out, to feeling like you should be taking things more seriously.”

Williams says working with two actors from traditional theatre backgrounds – Lydia Larsen and Pierro Niel-Mee – has given the show an edge. “We found during the audition that actors seem to feel a bit less self conscious about committing to the really emotional parts of the script, in a way that comedians seek to undermine – and that’s understandable – that’s our natural instinct.

"We never want to get too ‘wanky’ in a comedy show, but I felt for this script it was better to have people who were going to commit to the pathos, and the different emotional qualities.”

Travesty also announces a new production company – Fight in the Dog – with whom Williams directed a one-off rendition of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night back in January, starring the likes of Tim Key and Kieran Hodgson, as well as members of sketch favourites Massive Dad, Beard and The Pin. The performance raised over £8,500 for Refugee Action, and gave Williams some valuable experience ahead of Travesty’s opening. “From the practical side of producing it was very important, working closely with a script and thinking how a story works in a dramatic, theatrical context.”

Williams on People Time

Williams’ much needed fallow year from Edinburgh festival stand-up coincides with a particularly fertile period in what’s still a career in its infancy. He’s tackling several different projects at one time, involved in something that pushes the frontier of his creativity. He’s philosophical too about People Time, calling the BBC’s decision a disappointment but moving swiftly on. “We were proud of it, but it did take us by surprise how much love it got when it was on.”

The cast of that show – minus Australian comic Claudia O’Doherty – haven’t given up on the fruits of their effortless group dynamic. Williams, his Sheeps cohorts Daran Johnson and Alastair Roberts, along with Ellie White, and siblings Natasia and Jamie Demetriou – are keeping themselves busy with a web series called 2016: Year Friends.

It’s a thrilling exercise in spontaneity; written, filmed and uploaded to the internet once a month, calling to mind the surrealism of the cancelled Reeves and Mortimer sitcom House of Fools (which White starred in) and riffing with a knowing smile on the will-they-won’t-they Ross and Rachel love story.

“We all like working together so much, and think there’s such great potential for that group that we just want to keep it going until somebody gives us a chance, and I’m sure they will before long.”

Our time is up; there are some final touches to put to Travesty before it’s premiered at Latitude Festival ahead of the Fringe. But Williams is ready, and the excitement he speaks of feels genuine. It’s infectious.

“It’s been a nice metaphorical process of healing," he says, "and life coming together again".

Travesty, Assembly George Square Studios (Five), 3-28 Aug (not 15), 5.30pm, £6-11