Friday, August 5, 2022

Comedian Liz Kingsman: “I have a constant need to say I’m not arrogant. I’m not an idiot

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The comedian’s sold-out show recognized her as one of the brightest stars of 2022. As she makes it to the Edinburgh Fringe, she talks about success, self-promotion and sending up messy women

That’s, I’m afraid, what you get when your debut show becomes the hottest ticket in London and crowns you as one of the most promising stars of 2022. In January, the comic is sensational one woman show was a sold-out must-see that garnered a slew of five-star reviews, with one newspaper urging readers to “do whatever is legal to get a ticket.”

Liz Kingsman has a problem. “I can’t crack a joke with my friends now without them saying, ‘Ooh, funniest woman in Britain,'” she says with a nervous laugh.

And they did. Audiences flocked to London’s Soho Theater to see her searing but delightfully goofy portrayal of the messy woman who’s taken over culture over the past decade. Think Phoebe Waller-Bridges fleasack or Lena Dunhams girl – or even Frances in the recent BBC adaptation by Sally Rooneys conversations with friends. Stories about women’s lives are currently dominated by the kind of messy, self-destructive anti-heroine who, as Kingsman puts it on her show, “stumbles through her twenties in an utterly honest, darkly funny way.”

The premise grew from Kingsman — who is in her mid-thirties at an unspecified point (“I gotta let the casting directors decide how old they think I am”) — not to identify herself with messy women. When we meet for coffee on London’s South Bank, I understand what she means. Wearing a sleek navy blue dress, she’s quick to point out that the tattoos on her arms are for a job, not her own — “You make me look 6,000 times cooler than I actually am” — she’s dry, precise, and very drawn together.

She has an eye for the absurd that animates her comedy: Her conversations are peppered with light-hearted stories from colorful characters, from the cockatoo sitter who calls herself “Aunt Julie” to the temp worker who “made that little flourish” and a dancing woman mimics emoji upon discovering Kingsman was a performer (“I think about it all the time,” she beams).

But she’s a far cry from the exuberant, proudly flawed character she parodies. “I’m not good at being hilariously relatable — I’m not comfortable with that,” she says. “I just bury my mistakes. Nobody knows about it because I don’t tell anyone. I have an incredibly low embarrassment threshold.”

So how did this ultra-private, high-achiever fare fare under the scrutiny of a sold-out show? “My fantasy version would have been, I was having a good time and I wasn’t crying every day,” she says dryly. “There was such a big discrepancy between what I thought was going to happen and what happened.”

one woman show is a performance within a performance. Kingsman appears as a distorted version of herself – a selfish hacker who chooses to mimic you fleasack-style narration to get her big break. Soon we watch our protagonist perform wild birds, a gritty, unrelenting parody that functions on one level as a sort of messy women’s bingo. Our narrator is sexually open, has no name (none of these characters have one), and revels in the fact that women “don’t have to be likable anymore.”

It’s at once delightfully silly and an astute critique of how a once liberating narrative has become a prison of sorts. “It’s such an amazing moment in terms of what’s being made,” says Kingsman. “There are a lot of women in decision-making positions. So we should have a variety of stories being told. If you get a story that repeats itself in many different ways, then I thought, is that one thing?

Kingsman is finally taking the show to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, where it was set to debut in 2020 before Covid was interviewed. Of course, it will definitely not remain the only one-woman offer there. “It’s almost immersive – it’s going to its spiritual home,” she grins. The show is more complicated than a straight parody, with Kingsman’s character seemingly breaking the fourth wall towards the end, berating himself for mocking her peers. “It’s so mean,” she says angrily.

“Everything I say in this section is true — I was worried about hurting people’s feelings,” she tells me, but “the real goal is the landscape, not the women creating the work.”

Plus, Kingsman understands the urge to create your own roles, especially when roles for women can be ridiculously two-dimensional at first. “When you read interviews with really great actors and they talk about how they turn down all these wife and girlfriend roles, I think, ‘That’s nice, but that’s so far removed from the experience of a lot of part-time actors,'” she says. “You often don’t have much choice.”

Kingsman was born in London but grew up in Sydney. She has always wanted to act, but has publicly expressed her ambition to become a director. “I wanted to be an actor in my heart, but I thought it sounded delusional.” After graduating from high school, she left Australia to study English at Durham University. “I have told all my friends that I will be working in comedy in the UK. I didn’t know what I meant by comedy. In my mind it was directing, but also acting. I thought if I went to another country it wouldn’t be so crazy to try. I could go and be a new person.”

She was homesick for Durham, where she shed most of her Australian accent. “I have this classy Durham student accent that just doesn’t suit me,” she says, though she retains a slight Aussie twang, at least to my ears. But there were also positives: She joined the university revue and met comedians Stevie Martin and Tessa Coates, with whom she later founded the sketch trio Massive Dad.

After graduating, she got a job as a runner in the film industry, occasionally appearing as a stand-in for Felicity Jones and Natalie Portman. Her height and skin color made her the perfect candidate to block a scene while the A-listers took a break: “There’s a lot going on on set.”

Today she spends her time switching between comedy and more straightforward roles – she loves her long-running English-speaking role in French TV comedy, for example houses of Parliament, on the European Parliament: “My favorite thing to do is work really hard on things that people can’t see!” However, she still feels squeamish about calling herself an actress. “It’s the only job where saying you’re an employee is considered boasting,” she says.

Kingsman’s millennial peers may brag about her side hustles on social media, but she has an old-fashioned horror of self-promotion. “I have a very difficult relationship with social media,” she says of sharing one woman show‘s rave reviews. “I have a constant need to say, ‘I’m not arrogant. I’m not an idiot.”

“Narcissism is now rewarded,” she continues. “I would post something and think, ‘I feel really weird posting this stuff.’ And people would just say, ‘Don’t feel weird! Do it. It is wonderful!'”

She often feels, she says, “outside the narrative,” from being an “early adopter” of anti-Covid measures to, yes, messy stereotypes about women. “One of the tropes is a female best friend. I don’t have a best friend. I haven’t had a relationship with such an intense friendship with someone who wasn’t a friend.”

Likewise, she spent her twenties working, not disheveled evenings. “I was a receptionist during the day, wrote comedy or performed at night. I basically missed all birthdays. never had fun Fun only came when it was a small reward for a good job or a good gig. I can never relax. Hedonism is not my forte.”

And instead of having a complicated love life, she’s been in a relationship with her boyfriend, the film director, for nine years. During the pandemic, the couple – along with their dog Emmett – swapped their London flat for “a ridiculous thatched cottage” in Dorset, although they are now moving back. “Once the work started to ramp up, it got really tough.”

It was also difficult to understand the reactions to the show, largely because in many cases “the irony is ridiculous.” one woman show satirizes society’s tendency to obsessively hype a woman while flatly ignoring her peers. However, Kingsman’s press inevitably featured headlines such as: ‘The New Queen of Comedy’ and ‘Is This the Funniest Woman in Britain?’ (which, as mentioned, her cronies haven’t failed her). “If it was written in a sitcom, you would think, ‘This is too pushy,'” she says. “I think it’s just the way it works. But it’s interesting that it made one of my own points for me.”

In response to a review, Kingsman tweeted that “having a female critic from the broadsheets means a lot to me.” She was happy, she says, because so far most of the reporting has come from men. “I didn’t want it to seem like the narration was, We finally couldn’t say that, but she’s allowed to say it because she’s a woman.” In short, she didn’t want it to come across as misogynistic. “It’s not like I wrote a show about women that men enjoy.”

In addition to preparing for Edinburgh, Kingsman is slowly developing new material and writing between pauses in filming on the Apple TV drama, in which she had a small part that year. “I’m freezing slow,” she cackles. What are your post-fringe plans? “I will hopefully do the third season of houses of Parliament. And I’d love to bring the show to Sydney.” The show would certainly have won a comedy award at Edinburgh 2020 if it had taken place, although Kingsman gives a slightly maniacal laugh when I mention that. “Sure, sure,” she murmurs.

She tries to emphasize that one woman show didn’t turn her life into a fairy tale overnight. “It created really nice writing opportunities,” she says. “But it’s not like I’m going to the Oscars.”

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