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Josie Long: Something Better, 30th September – 15th October at Soho Theatre

| Comedy | 29/09/2016

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Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

Tomorrow night, Josie Long starts a two-week run at Soho Theatre with her new stand-up show, Something Better.  Like much of her previous work, the show fuses Long’s endearingly honest anxieties with her hopes for the future, shaped by strong left-wing beliefs.  Her confidence in these beliefs has been tested by a difficult break-up and a crushingly disappointing Brexit vote.  Despite that, the message she wants to deliver is upbeat, funny and profound.  

Kindness and Exuberance.  Trying is Good.  All of the Planet’s Wonders.  Romance and Adventure.  You only need to take a cursory glance at Josie Long’s previous show titles to realise what sort of person she is: an optimist.  She’s no different in real life: talking with warmth and excitement, overflowing with passion and ideas about how to create ‘something better’.  And that’s precisely what Long has done in both a literal and figurative sense.

Something Better comes from a darker place than her previous seven solo shows.  The comedian, actress and writer originally intended it to be overwhelmingly positive, focusing on political activists who’d inspired her.  And then the country voted for Brexit.

josie-long-1-please-credit-phil-chambers“It really knocked the stuffing out of me,” she confesses, sounding uncharacteristically low.  “I felt totally lost and defeated.”  Adding insult to injury, the shocking vote coincided with a painful breakup.  “It was a lot to deal with.  When I went back to writing the show, I wanted to respond to all that, and return to a place where I felt inspired and positive.  So I look at what’s happened and say: ‘yeah, but …’.”

Her voice returns to normal – with hints of Kathy Burke – and it seems she’s achieved this goal.  That’s great news for Soho Theatre audiences, as an upbeat Long’s one of the most infectious comedians around, tempering strong socialist views with a childish innocence, clarity with vulnerability, hope with its funnier friend: anxiety.

The last thing ever lost

These personality paradoxes are hard-wired: she spends much of the interview downplaying her talents and deflecting credit onto others, even questioning whether she’s a capable mouthpiece for the Left.  “My political shows always have a personal narrative,” she says, “or I feel self-conscious that I’m not well-informed or astute enough.  If I make it personal, there’s a better chance it won’t sound too terrible.”

That’s Long at her self-deprecating best, understating the preciousness that saw her doing stand-up at 14, and the intelligence that earned her an English degree from Oxford.  But her vulnerability isn’t affected.  Much of Something Better deals with the fact the 34-year-old isn’t where she hoped to be by now.

“I think a lot of people my age can relate to that,” she explains.  “There was that piece in The Guardian about ‘suspended adulthood’, how Millennials aren’t able to make the decisions their parents could at the same age.  You see it all the time.  If you let it, it can lead to uncertainty and helplessness.

“Take children.  My friends are growing up and having kids, and I want them one day.”  That’s evident from how often Long dotingly refers to her niece, after whom she named her last show – Cara Josephine.  “I’m not even in a relationship, so I’ve no idea how it’d even happen … but I’d like it to.”

With vulnerability exposed, Long quickly brings things back to politics and hope.  “I can relate those same feelings to politics,” she says.  “At the moment I’ve no idea how the Left will stop fighting amongst ourselves and persuade people that we’ve got the answers.  Or how we’re going to get over the fact that five people run about 80 per cent of the print media and don’t share our objectives.  But I really hope we do.”

Great white hope

“That’s not just wishful thinking,” Long says.  “While I’ve been despairing, some people have just got on with things in the most exciting and important ways.  Like Black Lives Matter and UK Uncut – grassroots organisations run by young people who face with real difficulties.  I don’t know whether I can convince people to agree with me: a 34-year-old, white, hand-wringing Leftie.  But I think I can convince people that these groups are worth getting behind.”

josie-long-3-pease-credit-giles-smithLong also sees other reasons to feel positive: “Brexit was the first time I’d ever voted alongside loads of moderate Tories.  It’s quite unifying to think there are things we agree on, and that 48 per cent of people are with me on an important issue.  And, ultimately, I feel positive because – well, f*ck it – what else are you going to do?”

There was nothing else Long was going to do once she’d been bitten by the comedy bug at an age when many get palpitations when asked to read aloud in class.  “I think it just temperamentally suits some people,” she explains.  “I was a show-off, I was impatient and willing to wing it.  Luckily, they’re all good qualities in a comedian.

“You have to love doing stand-up.  If you do, you’re stuck with it forever.  I’m very lucky I found what I wanted to do so early.”  Long pauses and laughs at herself.  “Although there are times I feel: ‘Oh, help!  I’ve got nothing else.  I’m trapped!'”

In case of emergency

I ask Long whether, as a non-conformist with a modest upbringing in Orpington, she found Oxford hard to stomach at times.  “Well, I was quite apolitical back then, busy getting by, trying to make things and be creative.  But I did find the overall experience tough.  That’s partly why me and my friend [Neil Griffiths] set up Arts Emergency.”

Arts Emergency is an amazing initiative, helping underprivileged pupils access higher education in the arts.  She co-founded it in 2011 in response to the Government’s austerity programme, to provide mentors (including Jake and Dinos Chapman, Polly Toynbee and Neil Gaiman) and other assistance to those who need it.

“There was one girl who was amazingly bright but couldn’t get the maths grade she needed.  We helped her with tuition and now she’s following her dream.  There was another who really deserved to get into fashion school, so we sorted some work experience which tipped the balance into her making it.”

Since 2011, Arts Emergency has grown from mentoring eight students to 120 per year.  “It’s the thing in my life I’m most proud of,” Long enthuses.  “The young people we work with are so smart and driven, yet they’re the ones who find it hardest to get access to things.  I just wanted to allow them to choose what they really love.  And every kid we help reinforces that there’s no recession of the imagination.  You can’t suppress people’s intelligence and gumption.”

Paying it back

Although firmly anti-austerity, it seems that Long is paying back the help she received from others along the way.  Her first real mentor was Stewart Lee, who spotted her doing stand-up after university and invited her to support him on tour.  As a childhood fan of Fist of Fun, Long still pinches herself now.  “It was unbelievable,” she gushes.  “Stewart really supported me and changed my life.  He gave me confidence in what I was doing and taught me so much.”

She also has high praise for the creative team behind Skins, the cult favourite TV show which she wrote for and appeared in.  “They were really generous with their time and wanted everyone to learn along the way.  It was a great show and I loved doing it.”  The proof’s in the pudding with Long and her “best friend in the entire world”, Isy Suttie, going on to even better things since.

For Long, that’s meant regular TV and radio appearances, countless comedy awards and even enjoying the trappings of celebrity – currently appearing in Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls.  Beyond this tour, there are countless projects on the horizon, including writing a play with Jonny Donahoe about love.  “He’s so great,” she says of Donahoe.  “I loved seeing Every Brilliant Thing at the Fringe and can’t wait to work with him.”

This attitude’s typical of Long, praising others ahead of herself, before she has to bring the interview to a close.  As we say goodbye, you can’t help but feel more positive.  Soho Theatre audiences can surely expect the same.

Josie Long is performing Something Better at Soho Theatre between Friday 30th September and Saturday 15th October 2016 at 21.15.  For tickets, head here.  To keep up to speed on Josie’s latest projects, see her official website or follow her on Twitter @JosieLong.

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