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Adam Riches: “Acting didn’t satisfy the side of my brain that was interested in challenging myself riskily.”

| Comedy, Theatre | 02/03/2018


Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

Adam Riches may be one of the most charming, loquacious masochists around.  

The performer whose commitment to art saw him shatter his right leg from the knee down when performing at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 but reappear four days later in a wheelchair.  A character comedian who acknowledges that his chosen style – often incorporating a large slice of audience participation – means “effectively ruining your sketch immediately from the ideal”.  And a risk-taker who’s chosen to revisit a show that, in his own words, “bombed so badly in 2003 that it took me a very long time to get over.”

Given this, it’s no surprise to see the former Edinburgh Comedy Award-winner take the unusual step of putting on five different shows at Network Theatre this week as part of Vault Festival, including that ill-fated 2003 production, Plat Du Nuit: The Comeback Special.  He’s actually taking on seven scripts, given that Thursday’s performance combined three works-in-progress – Coach Coach 2: Coach Harder, The Lone Dueller and The Guy You … – that will develop into stand-alone shows at this year’s Fringe.  This partly explains why he’s taken on this challenge.

“It’s a huge undertaking doing three shows in August,” he says, “so I’ve got to get my muscles working faster.  When I started out acting, I’d work on several scripts at a time, but I haven’t done that in years.  So I thought putting this on my plate and having to learn all these lines would kick me out of my comfort zone and get me ring-ready for Edinburgh.”

Riches’ run at Network Theatre isn’t solely about testing himself and new material.  There’s also a desire to showcase the best of his work and other shows that didn’t receive the acclaim the 38-year-old felt they deserved.  As to former, on Sunday night Riches will perform Bring Me The Head of Adam Riches, responsible for propelling him into the limelight when it won best show at the 2011 Fringe.

“When I won the award, I said a bit defensively that Bring Me The Head wasn’t that different to the work I’d done before.  But looking back now, it was so much tighter and more focused on what I could do with an audience.  It jettisoned all the overt theatrical troupes I’d been using to that point and satirised those I wanted to keep.  So it’s no surprise that it got a lot more praise than the others and I’m proud to be doing it again.”

Before that, he revisits two earlier shows – the aforementioned Plat Du Nuit and 2007’s Victor – which he admits “suffered a bit from being too aligned to theatre”.  However, Riches is upbeat about them earning more plaudits this time.  “I’ve never performed them in London and there’s some good stuff in there.  I always thought it’d be interesting to see how they’re received by people who like what I’ve done since.  I’m hoping for some catharsis.  If not, the worst that can happen is people are quiet for 50 minutes.  I can deal with that.  And whenever I work on new material, I find it immensely helpful to look back over old scripts and explore some of the characters I’ve worked on before.”

Unscripted riches

Those scripts would make for fascinating reading, given the care Riches takes developing his various onstage alter egos while allowing enough leeway in his material to bring audience members to the front and centre of many sketches.

“I left acting through boredom,” he explains, “as I wanted to challenge myself more ‘in the moment’.  So when I started comedy, I knew my work needed to be flexible and malleable in order for me to stay interested.  That was particularly true for festivals like Edinburgh.  I couldn’t face the idea of just reading out a script day after day for a month.  That didn’t satisfy the side of my brain that was interested in challenging myself riskily.”

M00129707-0110Riches has always listened to that side of his brain, whether it was fleeing school to work at EuroDisney or quitting acting after a handful of TV appearances, but he’s by no means flighty.  From a short time in his company, it’s evident that Riches’ onstage clowning belies a serious, methodical and dedicated approach to his work and – to an unusual extent – his audiences.

“I’m a huge fan of live comedy and know how much better it feels if the performance seems tailored to you.  So I always tried to do that, seeing what was in the room – like poor lighting, bad seating – and feeding that into the material.  Because if it felt fresh for me, it was more likely to feel interesting to the audience.  The audience interaction I do is basically an extension of that.”

Initially, Riches would study the crowd from behind the stage curtain and select his ‘volunteers’ in advance.  “That came from being anxious about people ruining sketches,” he chuckles warmly.  “And there were some bad ones.  I’d have men challenge me physically.  Or belligerent people, smiling their way through not helping.  Then I’d have people who were overly quiet and some who were over the top.  The full range!  But as I got comfortable and the characters became more flexible, it suited me better not to pre-judge who I picked.  Otherwise it might look like I was steering them onto the script, rather than letting them steer me around the script, which is the impact I’m after.”

Riches says he’s also had to adapt with his audiences, who were more timid when he first broke through.  “I definitely had that shock factor for using audiences so extensively.  When people heard about me, they were reluctant to sit at the front in case they got dragged up.  That created a brilliant energy in the room.  But over the years, the front rows began to fill up first with people who wanted to be picked and had thought about what they’d do if they were.  That’s probably positive because it means they know I don’t prey on people, but try to create something good together.  But it makes things more difficult for me.

“My first instinct was to do things so outlandish that it’d throw willing participants out of their comfort zone.  But that’s a dangerous road to go down: it could mean bringing live animals and weapons onstage.  Instead, I have to think more cleverly, and introduce elements that might affect them inwardly and outwardly.”

Changing faces

Although audience participation has become Riches’ calling card, it’d be wrong to assume he’s consigned his acting past to the scrapheap.  Many of his most successful characters – including bastardised versions of Daniel Day Lewis and Sean Bean (as whom Riches has appeared in Murder in Successville and 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown) – are overt nods to his first love.  And two of his new works are essentially pieces of theatre.

adam-riches-is-coach-coach-lst177845-1Coach Coach 2 follows on from Riches’ 2015 show cleverly pastiching American sports movies.  He again plays a High School Volfsball Coach (left) battling inner demons and a chewing gun addiction, alongside a smaller number of talented comedians (adding Daniel Cook to previous cast members Stevie Martin and Ben Target).

The Lone Dueller is, Riches says, “even more theatrical” and tells the tale of a blade for hire with shop dolls.  “It’ll be like Team America, only with mannequins and me in the middle as the only human”.

Both continue his trend of playing alpha males, something to which the 6’2″ Cambridge-born Riches is physically suited and knows all about as one of five brothers.  Similarly, in the The Guy Who …, Riches takes on a questionable man who meets women after they’ve come out of long-term relationships.  “He’s appeared in my solo shows before, but I wanted to flesh out his motives and story into a longer monologue.”

All in all, this ambitious workload seems to suit Riches talents as a talented playwright and actor on the one hand, and an improviser on the other.  “It’s funny you mention improv, because I don’t think I’m a good improviser,” he says.  “I think I’m strong adding stuff on top of what I’ve already prepared.  However, if you ask me to give you 600 uses for a tennis racket then I’d really struggle.  But I love improv and shows like Saturday Night Live were a huge influence.”

Although Riches has achieved notable success, you suspect his talents would’ve been better unleashed to a mass audience in something like SNL.  “It’s always appealed and it’s frustrating nobody’s been able to make something like it here.  It’d need to be live as the chaos is much more enjoyable and creates a forgiving audience.  But that’s a huge obstacle for television companies who are terrified of doing something like that unedited.

“People forget that SNL didn’t happen overnight.  It needed decades of patient progress.  There’s very little now that gets that from broadcasters.  As a performer, you have more bad nights than good when you start.  But if you believe in what you’re doing, you just know more people will start to enjoy it soon.  You need that approach from the highest level on a production of that nature for it to work.  Until that happens, I can’t see a British SNL happening sadly.”

Adam Riches is performing Five Nights Inside Adam Riches at Vault Festival until 4th March 2018, comprising Adam Riches and …, Pot Pourri – Three Works in Various States of Progress, Plat Du Nuit: The Comeback Special (2003), Victor (2007) and Bring Me The Head of Adam Riches (2011).  Get tickets here.  For information of Adam’s other upcoming shows, follow him on Twitter @TigcoRiches.  Images courtesy of Idil Sukan.

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