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Naomi Sheldon: “I’d love a world where we reclaim our emotions, not wait for them to affect our mental health.”

| Comedy, Theatre | 27/02/2018

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Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

Naomi Sheldon’s an ideal inspiration for anyone stuck in a rut.  In just two years, she’s gone from frustrated actress to creator and star of one of the most powerful, talked about plays in London.  

Good Girl, which Sheldon wrote in 2016 and debuted at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, runs for five nights at Vault Festival from tomorrow before transferring to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios for four weeks.  And in between performances, she’s busy penning the screenplay for a TV adaptation in conjunction with Clerkenwell Films, the company behind the highly acclaimed Misfits and The End of the F*cking World.

It’s quite a turnaround for the engaging Sheldon who, despite learning drama at the same school as Dame Judi Dench, had grown disillusioned by the lack of “juicy, meaty parts” available.  “I felt unsatisfied as an actor,” she says, “so thought about writing my own solo show.  I quickly realised that’s relatively easy to do, as you don’t need to wait for permission from the industry.  It’s an incredibly empowering process.”

The result is a superb semi-autobiographical play charting the development of a young woman coming to terms with what society expects of her (see our review).  While it rages at the limitations imposed on many young people, Sheldon’s episodic monologue addresses many broader themes intelligently.  That’s no surprise as, from an hour in her company, it’s clear that this energetic, passionate daughter of Yorkshire has plenty of well-considered things to say about the world, without ever sounding pretentious or, in her words, “overly wanky”.

That same passion’s evident onstage, where she seeks out each audience member with flashes of her large, expressive eyes, dragging them into her comedy and tragedy from the word ‘go’.  “It was definitely important for me to connect with people.  It was one of my key aims for the show and people have come up to me afterwards and said: ‘I get it.  That’s me!’  One girl came to see it in Edinburgh and sent her parents along the next day so they could understand how she felt.  That’s been the greatest success for me.  I guess that’s the power of art.”

Genesis

The power of Sheldon’s art comes as much from her acting as her writing, for which she credits her therapist, comedian Bridget Christie and leading improv comedy trainers The Free Association.

“I haven’t talked about this much, but I wrote Good Girl after having a bit of therapy.  As I was turning 30, I wanted a sort of M.O.T. to check where I was in my life and what was happening internally.  I really recommend it.  It helped unpackage things that I’d pushed down, but which later came out in weird ways.  We all know you can never really put a lid on those things – they always boil over – although it doesn’t stop us trying.

Naomi_Sheldon_story“Another impetus was seeing Bridget Christie doing her Mortal show in 2016, which was the first time I’d seen a woman absolutely furious onstage and being applauded for it.  I found that incredibly inspiring and decided I wanted to write with that passion.

“I knew I had similar feelings inside of me, but I just had to channel and trust them.  For that to happen, the improv courses I did at The Free Association during a sabbatical back in 2014 were hugely influential.  I got totally addicted to them.  They taught me to really trust my voice, to have faith in my ability to create characters in the moment and see them through.”

These influences also explain the humour littered through the show – especially when portraying teenage friendships and sexual awakening – as does the presence of Sheldon’s husband, Matt Peover, as director after overseeing shows for the likes of Nick Helm, Nina Conti and Mr Swallow.  But Good Girl is a long way from pure comedy, given its heaviness and the unsettling situations its main character finds herself in, such as the escorting episode.

“That bit wasn’t autobiographical,” Sheldon says.  “I think the show’s honest rather than truthful, but the fictional bits come from things I’ve seen or experienced.  With the escorting, those conversations were taking place in the noughties.  Following ‘Girl Power’, women were made to think of sex as something for other people’s pleasure, partly because of porn culture.  So lots of people I know thought: ‘We’re having sex and feeling nothing, so we may as well do it for money.’  I hope with ‘Fourth-wave Feminism’, fewer women will think like that.”

Spice of life

Modern feminism’s predecessor fares badly in Good Girl, despite using nostalgic songs by the Spice Girls and Madonna as interludes.  “When writing, I considered where my friends and I were at – in terms of relationships and sex – and how we present ourselves to the world.  I looked at 90s pop culture and realised ‘Third-wave Feminism’, which seemed great at the time, had so many flaws.  It was a dangerous message, loaded with capitalist ideals.

“Girl Power wasn’t meant to serve us; it was something for us to consume.  It felt empowering, but we never stopped to think what we actually wanted.  It wasn’t fully rounded, thought-out feminism, which I think we’re finally getting now.”

gxELDvAf_400x400That critique’s echoed in the main character’s sad struggle for direction as she simultaneously swallows her rage at societal restrictions.  But Good Girl isn’t simply an appraisal of feminism.

“I wouldn’t want people to think it’s just written for women,” Sheldon continues.  “As I say at the end, it’s aimed at people who burst at the seams.  People like me who’ve spent their lives feeling ashamed of their emotions.  That could be about whom they love, or because they feel passionately and that goes against the model of what we’re told is cool or good.  I’d love to live in a world where we reclaim those emotions, not just wait for them to affect our mental health.

“So the message is about acknowledging who you are and what you feel, not suppressing it.  Of course, that’s not always easy, but I hope the show can encourage people to talk about what’s going on inside so they feel less alone.”

To that end, Good Girl overlaps neatly with one of the literary hits of 2017, Robert Webb’s How Not To Be A Boy, which bemoaned how children are expected to feel a certain way based on gender.  “I’m absolutely in tune with Robert’s message,” Sheldon says.  “It’s no coincidence people like me and him became actors.  My parents weren’t particularly emotional and I felt a bit of an outsider at home.  So acting was an amazing release, allowing me to explore my feelings in a safe place.  Onstage, I’d actually get applauded for falling in love, being furious or killing myself.”

North career

Sheldon first experienced the validation that applause can bring after her family moved from Sheffield to York when she was nine and she became a late addition to the school pantomime.  “The only part left was a crocodile.  I had to come on with an alarm clock that was supposed to go off, but it didn’t on the night.  So, without thinking, I improvised a silly sound and everyone seemed to love it.  I remember thinking: ‘I could get used to this!'”

naomi_sheldonThose acting skills were developed at Dench’s alma mater, The Mount School, where Sheldon enjoyed taking on male roles necessitated by its single sex admissions policy.  Then following post-grad training at LAMDA, she appeared in a number of well-received plays – including Sex With A Stranger and The Pride – although TV roles surprisingly proved harder to come by.

More recently, Sheldon has poached parts in Red Dwarf and Cla’am, surprised by how naturally she’s taken to comedy.  “I always pictured myself doing pure drama and I’d say I’m more drawn to tragedy overall.  But I found comedy started to click quite quickly, because I guess they’re two sides of the same coin.  They’re essentially both forms of clowning.”

Part of the reason for this smooth transition stems from Sheldon’s expressive face – something anyone who’s seen Good Girl will attest to.  “A casting director said to me recently: ‘The thing about you, Naomi, is that you’re relatively pretty but aren’t afraid to make ugly faces’,” she laughs, feigning insult.  “I think there’s something in that and I do try not to be vain onstage.  So maybe my big expressions suit comedy, if that doesn’t sound too reductive.”

For now though, Sheldon’s reluctant to be thought of as a comedian.  “I’m definitely still wedded to theatre.  I’m working on a second show about toxic love – how we can never really know what’s going on with the other partner in a relationship.  And things are moving along nicely with the Good Girl screenplay.  It feels quite different from the stage version, a bit more focused on how we’ve ended up where we are, so perhaps less linear.”  She pauses, before another burst of passion pours forth.  “I know it’s still in its early stages, but it’s very exciting!”

Naomi Sheldon is performing Good Girl at Vault Festival between 28th February and 4th March (tickets here) and at Trafalgar Studios between 5th and 31st March (tickets here).  After the performances on 13th, 20th and 27th March, there will follow a free panel session with special guests discussing how emotion manifests itself in sex, politics and identity respectively.  Follow Naomi on Twitter @NaomiSheldon1 for more information on her upcoming projects. 

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