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Beth Vyse: As Funny As Cancer, Edinburgh Preview

| Comedy, Festivals | 04/08/2016


In our third Edinburgh Fringe preview, Ian Cater meets actress and comedian Beth Vyse to discuss her moving, deeply personal and remarkably entertaining show, As Funny as Cancer, which she is performing daily at Gilded Balloon at the Counting House.

“It really seems to me that in the midst of great tragedy,” said the American science fiction author Philip K. Dick, “there is always the horrible possibility that something terribly funny will happen.”  Dick was right, of course: humour isn’t reserved for the happy or mundane.  But if the “horrible possibility” arises in darker times, the challenge isn’t in spotting it, but in knowing how to react.

Fortunately, in Beth Vyse’s Edinburgh show – As Funny As Cancer – the audience has little choice but to laugh along as Vyse tells them about her diagnosis with breast cancer at 29 and mastectomy days later.

That’s partly because Vyse has come through it – given the all clear last year – and partly because, in her unique style, the show regularly verges into the madcap and surreal.  It’s hard to stay sombre when the narrator is dressed as Dolly Parton and handing out table tennis balls to the crowd.

2Deep Impact

But it’s still a deeply personal account of cancer’s impact on someone’s attitude, career and relationships.

“It threw my whole life up in the air,” she says in an assertive-but-friendly accent grown in Stoke and honed in Cheshire.  “I’d been with this guy called Michael Jackson – no, seriously – for about three months when he found the lump.  We’d just moved in together and were thinking about settling down.”

Vyse and Jackson – who features heavily in the show – are no longer an item and it has taken five years for Vyse to tell her story publicly.  So why now?

“Two reasons,” she says.  “Because I got through it and because I think it’s pretty funny and surreal.  It might sound strange, but you face this clash between the mundaneness of the NHS system and the shocking horror that’s happening to you.

“After I was diagnosed, a nurse showed me a booklet of all these photos of breast reconstruction.  She was so matter of fact.  At one point, she said: ‘If we do you a good one, you could end up in here.’  I laughed – it was the only way to deal with the ridiculousness of it all.”

Vyse’s other main coping mechanism was secrecy – keeping her condition from all except her very nearest and dearest, with whom she reconnected after drifting away from a little as her career took off.

“It was difficult because I was an actor and everyone’s so obsessed with the way you look.  I  kept thinking: would people look at me differently?  Will it affect the parts I get?” she says.  “But you can’t think like that.  You need to save yourself and if it means lopping off a boob, that’s what you have to do!”


Her condition unexpectedly helped her career, opening up an avenue Vyse had previously discounted.  Before the diagnosis, she’d acted in straight roles on television, radio and stage, after training at Rose Bruford College of Speech & Drama and spending two seasons with the RSC.  Comedy had always interested her, but she was afraid to give it a go and write her own material.

“It was easier to blame scriptwriters if things went tits up.  Pardon the pun.  But cancer helped move me into comedy because it gave me the confidence … no, it made me not worry about the consequences of doing it.

Comedy 5“So I started writing with a friend of mine, Anne Morris.  Basically, things I found funny: surreal and mental and brash and bold.  Sort of: Mighty Boosh meets Julie Walters.”

This spawned a number of extreme but popular creations, including Olive Hands – her leopard printed alter ego – in whose guise she’s again performing this month.

As for As Funny As Cancer, this is its second Fringe but – after impressive reviews last year – she believes it’s morphed into something more polished and confident.

“The first time I did the show, it was so raw.  I had to sit on my hands and basically say: ‘This happened, then this happened.’  It was heavy.  The next time, I used my hands.  The time after that, I stood up.  And then after that, people laughed!

The show’s proven so popular that it’s touring across the country after Edinburgh.  “It’s very different from my other stuff, because it’s so personal, but I get a lot from it.  Quite a few people with cancer have come to see the show.  One woman told me she’d been diagnosed earlier that day.  I said: ‘Oh God, go home!’  But she said: ‘No, it’s helpful to see someone get through it and laugh on the other side.'”

Although more at home acting and performing character-based comedy, Vyse is cautiously open to the idea of performing as herself again in the future: “I don’t think my life’s that funny really, but who knows.  I’m just keen to make sure I’m not seen as this one trick pony.  That’s part of the reason for doing Olive Hands again this year – to remind people that I’m not just The Cancer Woman!”

Beth Vyse is performing Funny As Cancer at 17.45 between 4th and 28th August (apart from 15th) at Gilded Balloon at the Counting House.  She is also performing as Olive Hands in All Hands to the Pump at 15.10 between 5th and 28th August (not 10th) at Heroes @ The Hive. Tickets for both are available via The Fringe’s Box Office.  For more information on Beth and her upcoming tour, see her official website.

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