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Birthday Girls: Sh*t Hot Party Legends, 15th – 19th November 2016 at Soho Theatre

| Comedy | 14/11/2016

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This week, the fantastic Birthday Girls bring their pacy, raucous and hilarious show – Sh*t Hot Party Legends – to Soho Theatre for five nights of pure fun.  It follows the show’s extremely successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it deservedly picked up our award for Best Comedy Sketch Act of 2016.  

Ahead of their London appearances, Ian Cater caught up with Rose Johnson, Beattie Edmondson and Camille Ucan to chat about lady gardens, awkward situations and the inspiration behind their weirdest creations.

Nothing captured the mad spirit of the 2016 Fringe quite like Birthday Girls.  No one else press-ganged their audience onto a wild night out, handing out shots, dancing and decorating them with glitter.  And no other act managed to produce such an enjoyable rollercoaster of surrealist, crude and subtly well-observed fun.  Assuming that Birthday Girls – Rose Johnson, Beattie Edmondson and Camille Ucan – recreate that same spirit in London, Soho Theatre audiences are in for something special.

yb7p3rbsThere’s a very good chance they will, given it stems from a bond formed at Manchester University a decade ago.  They’ve worked together ever since, initially as an six-piece sketch group called Lady Garden, performing seven times at Edinburgh. 

“We weeded out the weaker ones over time,” Ucan says, trying to keep a straight face.  “No, it was really fun being in a massive group.  But three’s more manageable in terms of turning the ideas into something tangible.”  It’s also given each performer more stage time to show off their talents, something they were born to do.

Although they pretend their enjoyment is artificial, Edmondson admits the trio have a blast: “It is really great to do because it’s just so lairy.  It’s like letting your inner beast come out.”

“Inner geese?” Johnson raises an eyebrow.  “Oh, beast, yeah.  You do feel pretty invincible when it’s going well.  You feel almost drunk.”

“We are drunk,” Ucan adds, referring to the amount of booze they seem to put away during performances.  That’s partly for show – creating a hedonistic Saturday night atmosphere – although they occasionally consume more than intended.

“I think the audience loves it when we’re a bit pissed,” Johnson explains, “because it takes that ‘loose cannon’ vibe of the show to the maximum.  It’s really exciting when people think we’ve no idea what’s next.  Mostly that’s an illusion: we work very hard to make it look like we’ve lost control.”

Loose cannons

Throughout the interview, each chip in to finish the others’ sentences and barely a minute goes by without a machine-gun burst of laughter.  There’s no doubt the loosest cannon is Ucan, the petite and high-energy brunette from near Winnersh in Berkshire (made semi-famous by The Office).  She’s equally at home stealing scenes with a range of hilarious accents and wild eyes, as playing pranks on the others with unplanned props or lines.  Ucan also has the unique ability to thrive when the audience doesn’t get the joke.

“Camille loves when we have a bad gig,” says Johnson, with a hint of bewilderment (it’s clear she’s the worrier of the group).  “It’s such a weird conceit.  You know people aren’t enjoying it, they know they’re not enjoying it, but you all just carry on.  But Camille gets this look which is halfway between horror and glee, and you know she’s revelling in it.”

Ucan admits taking perverse pleasure in awkward situations: “When you’ve done a show like ours so many times and most audiences enjoy it, you get this confidence that the material’s good.  So when you go on with that first sketch and people don’t laugh, it’s kind of thrilling.”

Those occasions are now few and far between – even when Birthday Girls perform out in the sticks – partly due to making their set more accessible: mixing surreal and risqué sketches with more thoughtful observations on modern life.  Occasionally, they combine all three, such as the scenes in which a couple perform sex acts through fear of getting bad Airbnb and Uber ratings.

Sketchy memories 

Although prudes best stay away, Johnson thinks most will enjoy Sh*t Hot Party Legends: “Although it helps if people understand the sketch comedy format.  That’s a challenge, because it isn’t on UK TV anymore.  Money’s spread over so many channels, and sketch shows are more expensive to make than panel shows or sitcoms as you need lots of different locations and costumes.  Plus there’s a lot of wastage: maybe one in four sketches make the final cut.

fullsizerender“Channel 4 recently said that it isn’t going to commission any more sketch shows, because they’re better suited online.  But all those massive, American viral clips – SNL, Key & Peele, Amy Schumer – come from half an hour sketch shows where they’ve had space to develop their vision.  They’re normally the stand out moment from a much longer programme.”

It’s certainly no reflection on the talent out there, with Birthday Girls, Lazy Susan and Massive Dad leading the field with all-female casts.  And the challenge of getting their own TV show – which Birthday Girls will surely overcome soon – hasn’t lessened their appetite.  It just means they’ve had to find other ways of building reputations and making ends meet.

Collectively, that’s involved making a short film with Kate Herron – Valentine – and web series with Turtle Canyon, as well as writing for TV and radio.  For Ucan, it’s meant pursuing her love of acting on stage, TV and in film – most notably in BBC 1’s Truckers and alongside Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 2015’s 45 Years.

“I really like drama,” she says, before the other two let slip – to her embarrassment – that Ucan had a place at RADA after university.  “And I always like comedy which feels truthful.  I’m more interested in ‘character and story’ than gags, so I feel more at home with comedy-drama than pure comedy.  Having said that, when you watch Birthday Girls you’ll see me pretending to be Jamie Oliver and putting on this weird voice … so I guess I like both.”

Standing alone

Johnson’s taken a more varied route, holding down a regular job and trying her hand at stand-up with a monthly residency hosting Rye Laughs at The Nines in Peckham.  “This whole thing’s been a very gradual process,” the Devonian says, “so it’s great we can now focus more on our sketch comedy.  We’d never have had this run at Soho Theatre a few years ago.  Most of it involves driving three hours to a gig in Gloucestershire with a car full of props, so you sometimes wonder why people aspire to be in your position.  But when it all goes well, it’s such fun.”

As for stand-up, Johnson’s cautiously positive: “I really wanted to try it, but I was terrified – in fact, I still am.  If nothing else, it’s great practice for sketch comedy, improvising and talking to a live audience.  But it’s so competitive.  You’d really have to focus on that full-time to make it work.  One day, I’d like to do my own Edinburgh show … but I’ve talked myself out of that before I’ve even finished the sentence.”

I suggest that writing – if not performing – stand-up might be an easier task than scripting sketch comedy.  Johnson concurs, to an extent: “It’s tough to write and each year you panic that you haven’t got anything funny left.  Then you’ve got to somehow turn these unrelated sketches into a show, pulling everything all together.  It’s not easy creating a façade of narrative satisfaction, when what we do is generally pretty loose.”

Edmondson disagrees: “When I think about writing a stand-up show, it blows my mind.”  And she should know, working closely with Josh Widdicombe, Elis James and Jack Dee on BBC Three’s Josh – now commissioned for a third series.

Absolutely fabulous

However, you sense that Edmondson thinks up sketch ideas more easily than most – befitting the daughter of one of the country’s greatest ever sketch performers, Jennifer Saunders (not to mention the equally talented Ade Edmondson).  That grounding and hard work has led Edmondson to success already, including one of the lead roles in Josh, a Maltesters advert and – most recently – Bridget Jones’s Baby.

021113_49In Birthday Girls, she generally plays the straight role, perhaps more from necessity – in the interests of balance – than inclination.  Indeed, the others credit her for inspiring some of their best creations, including the oddest but most memorable characters: Ian Prankin (a cross between Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin and Jeremy Beadle) and Jamie Oliver (a creepy kitchen-loving toddler babysat by Edmondson).

“She comes up with some good stuff.  But when we wrote the Prankin sketch, I was totally unconvinced it was any good because it’s so weird and stupid,” Johnson admits.

“But that’s most of our sketches,” Edmondson points out.

“It is,” Johnson smiles.  “But I still had this existential crisis on stage, thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing?’  Then you eventually get confidence in the character and realise people are laughing.  Not always though.”

It’s Ucan’s turn again: “The thing is you can never second-guess what’ll make people laugh.  That’s the fun of it: the surprise.  When me and Beattie write together, we’ll come up with something we’re sure is the funniest thing in the world.  Remember ‘Magician Free Stalker’?  Then we explain it to Rose and ….”  All three collapse into laughter, as Johnson mutters something about the ‘worst idea ever’.

And that final exchange sums up the trio pretty well: bold, creative, funny and complementary.  Go and see them this week.

Birthday Girls are performing Sh*t Hot Party Legends between 15th – 19th November 2016 at Soho Theatre from 9.30pm.  To get tickets, head here.  For more information on Birthday Girls’ upcoming tour dates, TV projects and excellent YouTube videos, see their official website and follow them on Twitter @BDayGirlsComedy.

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