Good writing is all about putting characters into testing situations. Same goes for great comedy. Usually, the best stuff is made up of recognisable characters (albeit weird and wonderful ones) making choices which either lampoons their reality or celebrates it. Great comedy characters are tremendously exciting. We all have our favourites. There are great male characters but there are plenty of wonderful women too, and often it’s the women who get second billing.
Looking through my own DVDs, I realise that the comedy canon is festooned with brilliant female characters: Lucy from I Love Lucy, Phoebe Buffay from Friends, Hannah Horveth from Girls, Mindy Lahiri from The Mindy Project, Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, Ellen Morgan from Ellen, Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, Roseanne Conner from Roseanne, Lindsay Bluth Funke from Arrested Development, Sue Sylvester from Glee and all of The Golden Girls. Despite popular belief, women are funny and make for great comedy characters. Some of the funniest people I know happen to have a vagina.
The best characters are well-rounded, thinking, feeling women who do not have to apologise for being there. The actors playing those roles are more than happy to make themselves look ugly, say terrible things and represent their gender in all its nuanced intricacies. And no, I don’t find Jess from New Girl remotely interesting. She’s too twee; constructs of what Hollywood wants out of a ‘funny’ woman and, ‘girl-next-door’? Purlease.
And so to Lip Service, aka Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding who, after more than 30 years in the business, are still packing out venues like the Oldham Coliseum and making ‘em laugh. Directed by Gwenda Hughes, the Lip Service gals’ new show, The Picture of Doreen Gray, is a delightful parody of the Oscar Wilde novella of the same-ish name.
A popular but ageing radio and TV celeb (Doreen Gray) is losing ratings and the favour of her bosses. She’s half-heartedly asked to be guest-of-honour at the 150 year celebration at her old school. The more famous male celeb (he’s won the Turner Prize doncha know) is unavailable so Gray is bandied around with little enthusiasm. She’s fed up with her lot. She knows its her age that’s getting in the way of her successful career and as the crowds dissipate (played with varying degrees of gusto by a community group), Gray (Fox) decides to try to find the self-portrait she made all those years ago.
Gray finds her painting – herself as Titania – and magic happens. She swaps places and her life becomes infinitely better. She’s young for a start, so therefore everyone loves her and her career takes off.
All the while Ryding takes on the other roles and does them brilliantly. My personal favourite is the Top Gear-type presenter whose laconic and patronising air is toe-curling and hilariously accurate.
Lip Service shows always feel anarchic, messy and a tad ‘put together’. The community group participation did, at times, feel a little tacked on but after only eight hours rehearsal with them, it’s no surprise. There are lots of brilliant ideas, funny jokes and deep themes all held together with safety pins and sticky-back plastic. But, like Les Dawson on piano, you have to be able to play very, very well to play badly.
The script is funny as hell and the two women sure know how to work an audience. Doreen Gray isn’t just silly characters, either. The themes about ageing and about women in the media are some of the play’s real virtues.
What Lip Service do well is blurring those lines between the professionals and the audience. ‘Come with us’, they seem to say, ‘because we’re not sure what we’re doing but we’re all friends here, right?’ I think they like it here, with their friends, rather than on a pedestal. And for an audience member, it’s pretty joyous being considered one of their friends.