Last week I went to see Peta Lily's Topless at the Hackney Attic. A masterclass in physical comedy, comic timing, the female voice and emotional honesty. It was part of a #LaughorCry17 two act programme by To The Moon, founded by Artistic Director Sharon Burrell, passionate about serving up the darker side of life with a shot of laughter, and getting women's stories heard. In an interesting juxtaposition, Lily shared the bill with Ellen Waddell, a performer in her early 30s, who revisited her people-pleasing, perfectionist, ex-Indie rocker 2012 self, stripping back the lies she told with disarming honesty. Lily, on the other hand, rewound 20 years to the original Topless, setting the show in context by way of an introduction. The show is the first in a trilogy charting different stages of life, and was followed by Midriff and then Chastity Belt (click here). I was looking forward to the evening because I had enjoyed Chastity Belt as a kind of heads up as to what lies ahead, while Topless was written when she was around my age, speaks to the here and now, and, as I told Peta later, quite frankly I was in need of a good laugh.
Lily is the pioneer in the art of Dark Clowning, where the comedy is informed by pain and suffering, so I knew the show would contain elements of black humour, though I have it on good authority from a friend who has been on one of her courses that Dark Clown work delves even deeper into tenebrious material. Clowning in this sense also refers specifically to physical comedy, but from watching Chastity Belt I knew Lily to be a gifted poet, telling her story through verbal as much as corporeal language. I expected witty, and on occasion acerbic, reflections on being a woman, life, love and sex, but my god, I was not prepared for the emotional rollercoaster moving from the pain of a marriage break-up, to taking a younger lover herself (an old flame, we cheered!), to breast cancer and sticking-plaster sex, and ultimately to the death of her mother. It feels a bit strange to say then that I was laughing throughout, but that's dark clowning for you. It reaches deep into the most poignant parts without swerving into sentimentality. Life lands blows. We have to deal with it and laugh, or else we'd never get up again. There was macabre humour to be found describing the painful mangle of a mammogram ("it's like a strippergram but with a granny hug at the end!"), or when driven round the bend by her lover. Watching Lily, fed up, shaking her fist declaring "c'est foutu! c'est cassé! c'est passé! c'est oublié!" ("it's fucked! it's broken! it's over! it's forgotten!") - going round in circles on some imaginary Parisian roundabout, was simply a priceless, life-affirming moment. And that's the thing about Lily, she has élan, she has verve, she has style and she's lots of fun. Dressed initially in a scarlett trenchcoat and red beret, stripping off to a lacy black number, wiggling her derriere to distract the audience while she consults her script - in the programme it was classed as a reading but it wasn't, though every so often Lily mined the comic potential of losing her thread - she channelled Anne Bancroft whether as a regular Mrs Robinson or the dowdy book collector in "84 Charing Cross Road". A natural mimic, conjuring up a whole cast of characters from Peat Bog lady to her curly lashed dancer boy, Lily tantalised with a wicked wit that was very close to the bone, painfully, acutely funny, but never cruel. An utterly brilliant evening and a class act.
Sometimes there comes a dark night of the soul... check out Peta Lily's blog at www.petalily.com/clown-dark-clown-theatre-practice-blog and contact her through her website for more information on dark clowning and upcoming courses in July and future events.
To The Moon is producing five female solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, including Ellen Waddell @ellenstarbuck.
See www.to-the-moon.net for more information.