Tomorrow night, Rachel Parris gives the first of three performances of award-winning show Best Laid Plans at Soho Theatre this week. Ahead of her run, she spoke to Ian Cater about break-ups, the curse of ‘niceness’ and fictitious twat bankers.
Persuading you to go and see Rachel Parris this week at Soho Theatre should be an easy sell.
The talented comedian, singer, musician and actress is very much on an upwards trajectory, increasing her profile with each comedy gig, acting job and improv appearance she juggles across the country. Parris’ voice – straight out of the West End – has long been her strongest suit, but her stand-up skills and confidence are catching up. Her latest show, Best Laid Plans, showcases these superbly and earned Parris our Best Musical Comedy Act Award for 2016.
Despite her natural modesty, she describes the show’s current incarnation as “hopefully even better”. Boosted by Soho Theatre’s atmospheric cabaret room and grand piano, perhaps even Parris is starting to believe in herself.
Best Laid Plans focuses on a break-up Parris went through a year ago, which left her contacting the Samaritans for help. It made her question why she didn’t have the things she’d expected by now: a husband, kids, a house and a car.
Those expectations form the basis for a well-crafted critique of being single in your 30s, which avoids self-pity and switches between stand-up, readings from exaggerated emails with ‘Samaritan Jo’ and perfectly performed songs – including the excellent Gym Song – blending Broadway with wordplay. It was widely heralded at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and rightly so.
Since then, Parris has improved its content, tweaking jokes, songs and delivery speed to get the most laughs she can from what’s, at times, very raw and personal material.
“There are bits I wanted to let breathe more,” she explains. “At the Fringe there’s a 55-minute cut-off, so you have to rattle along more than you’d like. But I also wanted the chance to talk to the audience and ask them about their experiences. Basically, to make it more like a relaxed comedy atmosphere than a presentation I have to rush through.”
This change is welcome: my sole criticism last August was that the switch between monologue and song sometimes felt hurried. There are other adjustments Parris says became necessary more recently. “Weirdly, some things that you’ve done successfully for about a year suddenly stop working. There are sections which don’t make people laugh so much any more, so needed reworking. If they don’t work for three consecutive performances, then they’ve had it.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is how Parris characterises her show: despite taking the serious step of reaching out to the Samaritans, she’s clear in her own mind that what she felt a year ago wasn’t clinical depression.
“I understand why it was lumped into that category at the Fringe, when so many comedians were talking about mental health issues. But I’ve got loads of friends who’ve been diagnosed with depression and it’s such a profoundly terrible thing to have to live with. Back then, I felt very down and very sad – and I still do from time to time. I just don’t think it’s the same as what those friends suffer from, so I don’t want to take that label away from them.”
Although it sounds like a fine line, it’s one Parris has consistently trodden. As she explains in the show: “I wasn’t suicidal, just really disappointed. Like you are by the sight of Harvey Keitel doing car insurance adverts. Or by the idea of Rylan.”
What’s indisputable is that – as well as being extremely funny and ultimately uplifting – Best Laid Plans serves as an important reminder of the Samaritans’ work. And Parris deserves great credit for her efforts to repay them in some way for the help they gave her. She raised nearly £1,500 for the Samaritans during her Edinburgh run and has since developed a close link with the charity.
“To my surprise, I got a message from them during the Fringe saying they were sending someone along, which made me a bit nervous. I didn’t want them to think I was laughing at what they do. But they seemed to really enjoy it and recently I’ve done a couple of videos for them.”
Damned with praise
Parris is extremely open and easy to interview – clear to anyone listening to her recent appearance on Stuart Goldsmith’s Comedian’s Comedian Podcast. The only annoyance she ever seems to express is slight resentment at always being described as ‘nice’. “I’ve made my peace with it now,” she laughs, “and I do know it’s nearly always put out there in a positive way. Part of what used to bother me was when it was used instead of a more positive description, like “hilarious” or “very good”. So partly it came from worrying that I wasn’t good enough.
“I think the other part came from growing up wanting to be a bit different than you are. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be like Shirley Manson [lead singer of Garbage]: I wanted to be kickass and goth and sexy in that dark way … and I think part of me still wants that. But it’s just not really me! So I’ve come to realise that maybe that was a slightly immature rebellion against who I am.”
Having a sunny and compassionate disposition doesn’t seem to have held Parris back, although it has caused her problems from time to time. For example, she admits occasionally leaving out lines through fear of upsetting friends or family present at a show. It’s rare for comedians to confess compromising material in this way, but when she explains why you can’t help but empathise.
“My first solo show, The Commission, had this entirely fictional storyline about a flatmate called Caroline – who I was supposedly in love with – who was getting married to this awful twat banker, Michael. It was all completely made up. But at the time a lot of my closest female friends were getting married and often to people working in finance.
“Some of them came to see the show and as I was singing about hating Michael, I realised: ‘Oh God, you’re going to think this is about you!’ I rushed up to them at the end, saying: ‘That wasn’t about you, even though I blushed when I looked at you!’ I’ve only left things out on a handful of occasions, but it’s an ongoing paranoia I have to fight against.”
Laying plans to rest
After Soho Theatre, Parris takes Best Laid Plans to Maidstone, Bristol and Oxford before finally laying it to rest. “It’s always sad to say goodbye to a show,” she says, “but I think it’ll be time to move on then. I started writing it so long ago – frankly even before the break-up in some form – and that time of my life feels a bit distant now.”
That doesn’t mean she’ll get to put her feet up, as plenty of projects are keeping Parris busy. There’s Austentatious – the successful improvised period comedy troupe – which is moving its monthly London shows from Leicester Square to the much larger Lyric Theatre. There are character pieces, such as caustic wine expert Tasmin Chivers in BBC Two’s Revolting and Comic Relief rep in a new comedy short with Anna Morris. Then there’s the intriguing FMW short film, Godless, released over the next few weeks. “That was fun to do,” she says. “Although it’s a dark comedy, it’s fairly serious acting compared to the ludicrous stuff I normally do. And it’s really nice to actually say someone else’s words!”
Additionally, Parris has to finalise her new show – currently called Keynote at the suggestion of friend Sophie Duker – for this year’s Fringe. As the name suggests, it revolves around being a guest speaker – a role Parris will fulfil at alma mater Loughborough High School’s annual prize-giving ceremony in September.
“The show’s about me thinking: ‘What kind of role model can I possibly be for these girls?’ It’s got character bits as well, where I do snippets from different speeches like a father-of-the-bride one and a Braveheart-style battle cry. But the crux is really: what you’re supposed to say to youngsters these days and what comfort you can offer them. It’s a very nice school, which I managed to get a scholarship to – all scholarship girls have to say that defensively – and I’m a bit nervous going back to speak. But it’s an honour really and gives you some stamp of legitimacy. I spend so long thinking: ‘Why am I doing this? Is it going well?’ So it’s nice when people fall for the facade that I’m doing well.”
It’s not facade of course: things are going well for Rachel Parris. And that’s really nice.
Rachel Parris is performing ‘Best Laid Plans’ at 19.30 between 6th and 8th March at Soho Theatre. For tickets, head here. And for more information on Rachel’s myriad projects, follow her on Facebook or Twitter @RachelParris.