Caro Meets Comedy Interview Theatre Interview

Rachel Parris: Thirty Christmases

By | Published on Thursday 30 November 2017

Coming up at New Diorama is a new play by Jonny Donahoe, performed by a trio of highly talented individuals: Donahoe himself, his Jonny & The Baptists collaborator Paddy Gervers, and Rachel Parris, who you probably know from her solo shows, work as a member of the Austentatious troupe, and from various TV appearances, including her regular roles on BBC satirical news show ‘The Mash Report’.
Parris is set for a busy festive season, appearing in ‘Thirty Christmases’ as well as starting Austentatious’s monthly residence at Piccadilly Theatre. Ahead of all that, I arranged for a quick chat.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from ‘Thirty Christmases’? What happens in the show?
RP: Expect laughter, music and maybe even a bit of a cry! The play is told by a brother and sister who, in a deliberately broken and unreliable way, and with the help of their oddest friend Paddy, recount the thirty Christmases which they have spent together, and, crucially, apart. We find them as they embark on their first Christmas together in ten years.

CM: So what story does the play tell?
RP: Not to give too much away, but the brother and sister (called Jonny and Rachel, why complicate it!?) have had a very difficult upbringing but have always pulled towards each other through story telling and singing and making music – so the show is a joyful, musical one above all else. But their experiences have actually been very sad and eventually pull them apart. We see them telling us why, and trying to sew themselves back together.

CM: What themes does it explore?
RP: It explores themes of homelessness, socialism, immigration, class prejudice and eggnog – it really doesn’t hold back! But really, it’s about family – the highs and the lows.

CM: What role do you take in the show?
RP: My role, the sister, spans thirty years, so while she starts out as a sweet, smart little girl, by the time she’s a teenager she has had to learn to protect herself, even if that means cutting herself off from her family. She remains cheerful and playful but with an edge now – I see her as strong, determined and I have feel quite defensive of her, I definitely want to fight her corner!

CM: How did you come to be involved in it?
RP: I’ve known Jonny and Paddy for some years so when they needed a piano-playing, singing, comic-minded actress, they invited me to come on board and I jumped at the chance to work with them. I’d seen the Jonny and the Baptists shows for years and I’d also seen Jonny’s play ‘Every Brilliant Thing’, so I knew his writing would be emotional and joyful, and it is.

CM: As well as working on this, you have some big Austentatious shows coming up in the West End. Are you looking forward to playing such a large venue?
RP: Yes! We can’t wait! We’ve been on tour all of this autumn and after a lot of preparations, we get to play our biggest venue so far! We open on 5 Dec, with new set, new costumes and a new format. I will join the gang for the next two dates in January and Feb.

CM: Everyone knows about Austentatious, but can you tell us a bit about it anyway, just in case, with particular reference to how you got involved with it?
RP: Yes, sure – so Austentatious is an improvised Jane Austen novel – we get a title suggestion from the audience, and then we act out a story, making it up as we go along, in the style of Austen, in full costume. Every show is different. We started the group in 2011 and performed it above a pub to 12 people. When we first began, a few of us knew each other from previous groups and we’d all done various kinds of improv for around five years then. After moving to various (bigger) pub rooms in 2011 and 2012, we went to Edinburgh where it was a hit and since then we’ve done Edinburgh every year as well as a monthly London residency  at the Leicester square Theatre, UK tours and now the West End. We never thought it would still be going this many years on, but we are thrilled it is!

CM: How does one get so good at improvising? Are you born with it or is it a skill that can be developed?
RP: As with any skill, it’s a bit of both. You might be born with, say a quick mind and an adaptability and a vivid imagination, but without tuition, you won’t be able to make the most of those gifts, in improv. It is a skill, like clown, or dance, or vocal projection, that you have to work at and learn and hone – and like those things, you don’t stop learning it. I’ve taken classes and workshops in all kinds of different improv throughout my ten years doing it and I will keep doing that for as long as I intend to perform, I’ve got so much still to learn, and you get out of practice at one style when you are regularly doing another. Take the classes. It’s fun!

CM: And talking of being born to things… did you always want to be a performer? Is this the job you expected to end up doing?
RP: I always loved performing, yeah – in school plays and concerts and stuff like that. I also always loved writing – poetry and stories – and I suppose I do that as well now. I would never have expected to be a comedian! Definitely not, it never occurred to me. My dream was to be in a West End musical I think! (It still is a bit!)

CM: As well as performing live you’ve done quite a lot of TV work. How do the two things compare? What’s the best bit of your job?
RP: I love the variety of roles in the TV work I’ve done. The last few jobs I’ve had, I’ve been a drunk middle-aged wine expert, a corrupt charity worker in Ancient Rome, a sombre news reporter, a drugged-up Tess Daly, and a bee.

CM: Is there anything you’d like to do that you haven’t done? What ambitions do you have for the future?
RP: I’d love to write my own musical, and be in it! I’d also love to write my own sitcom and be in it. They are my “the dream”, and I’m working on them now!

CM: What’s coming up next, in the more immediate future?
RP: Well ‘The Mash Report’ returns to BBC2 in January, so I’ll be back at the social media wall and as Emma Bradford, every week for that! As discussed I’ll also be in the Austentatious West End shows from January, and I’m doing a cabaret night at Brasserie Zedel on January 25th.

After that I’ll be touring my solo comedy show ‘Keynote’, in Spring!

‘Thirty Christmases’ is on at New Diorama from 4-23 Dec, see the venue website here to book your tickets. ‘Austentatious begins its monthly residency at Piccadilly Theatre on 5 December, details about that here.

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