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Ben Moor: Who Here’s Lost

By | Published on Sunday 7 August 2022

Long term Festival-goers will be well aware of Ben Moor and his past successes at edfringe – including shows like ‘Not Everything Is Significant’ and ‘Coelacanth’ – the latter of which won him a Herald Angel Award and was later produced as an afternoon play for Radio 4. 

And, in the meantime, you may well have seen him popping up at other, non-Edinburgh festivals (for yes, they do exist) and also on your TV screens from time to time. He’s renowned for his excellent one man plays and we have always been big fans, meaning we were very excited indeed when we found out that he would be performing at edfringe this year for the first time since 2013.

I arranged a chat, to find out about the three shows he’s working on this Festival and what it’s like to be back. 

CM: Firstly, it’s great to see you back at the Fringe. Why did you stay away so long? And what prompted your decision to come back to the fray this year? 
BM: Thank you Caro – it’s such a joy to be back here. My first Fringe was 1988, and over the decades it’s become a temporary home from home – a magical place and time. These beautiful months have such a special vibe of creativity, excitement and inspiration; honestly every time I arrive at Waverley station for the start of the Fringe it feels like a new chapter in the best book.

My most recent Fringe was 2013 with ‘Each of Us’, and for a few summers after that I was performing at other festivals like Green Man, Port Eliot and WOMAD, clashing with the Fringe. I still developed new work though, which would premiere annually at the sadly missed Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall, through the Idler Academy, and I was due to bring the three shows to the 2020 Fringe.

On Earth 1 I’m sure I did and I hope they went well, but here on Earth C-19, they’ve been delayed to this year.

CM: So, these three shows: let’s talk about each of them in turn. Can you start with ‘Who Here’s Lost’? What story does it tell and what themes does it explore? What inspired it? 
BM: ‘Who Here’s Lost?’ is a solo storytelling piece, the type of which I’ve been doing since the 90s. My unnamed narrator character is offered a chance to go on a road trip with his ex-mother in law, and along the way they experience the landscape of their lives in an offbeat, weird way.

It’s intended to be dreamlike, spiral in its linearity, evocative of untouched moments, feelings, connections and absences, but hopefully funny and uplifting too; full of joys, mysteries, sadness and smiles – the things this life has most to give.

It’s kind of hard to place it in a genre as there are deliberately funny lines right up against quite poignant and poetic images. There’s also a stunning soundscape and musical score composed and recorded by Simon Oakes and Suns Of The Tundra which leads the story onwards.

I think my inspiration comes from living and knowing that in the sad times there is a corner you can take that will return you to joy, or to a new place, and that any particular time doesn’t last for long, so while there’s air to breathe, there are stories to tell.

CM: Can you tell us about ‘Pronoun Trouble’ too? What can we expect from that in terms of content and themes?
BM: ‘Pronoun Trouble’ was a departure for me. It was one of the pieces I brought to Port Eliot, with an imposed deadline and a blank page to fill.

It opens with the start of a lecture about the Merrie Melodies cartoons known informally as ‘The Hunting Trilogy’. Chuck Jones and his team created a short film each year in the early 1950s pitting Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny against Elmer Fudd and each other. They include the famous “Duck Season!” “Rabbit Season!” arguments and are, frankly, among the funniest films ever made.

The lecturer goes into ridiculous depth to try and explain the relationships, themes and secret meanings behind the trilogy, as it is clear the trilogy is their favourite thing. Meanwhile I am watching the lecture and considering my own favourite things, my relationships, and a problem I’ve noticed on my travels.

The piece is very much a Powerpoint lecture, and it covers interesting words, wonderful creatures, invented academia, and I hope some truths about friendship and how we should be there for each other. Also there are some very silly gags and one-liners. 

CM: And finally, tell us about ‘BookTalkBookTalkBook’, the show you’re doing with Joanna Neary. What kind of show is it? Where did the idea for it come from? 
BM: Again, this was first performed at Port Eliot. I’ve known the wonderful Joanna Neary for years – we first collaborated on a Stewart Lee project for the National Theatre Studio in the mid-2000s – and I’m a huge fan of her solo character work – and please do see her in ‘Wasp In A Cardigan’ at The Stand Comedy Club 2 at midday.

I wanted to do something non-solo, and having seen many literary festival events, and hosted an author talk myself – terribly! – I thought there was fertile comic territory in their awkwardness, ambition, bafflement and regret. So the piece begins with the two authors, an ex-couple, booked for an event called Commendable Boundaries, covering their work and lives, but without their moderator – Tim – who seems to be running late.

They decide to start and it becomes clear that there are unresolved issues between the pair, which may or may not be expressed through their work. And then I shouldn’t say much more, as part of the pleasure for the audience is the way it twists in altogether unexpected directions.

There are strands about AI, about authorship and the way books change as we change, and there are important tips about washing-up too. It’s essentially a one act play in the vein of the theatre of the absurd; Stewart Lee said it was as if Jorge Luis Borges had written a parody of book festival events, and I was delighted by that as Borges is a big inspiration.

CM: You’re known for your past excellent solo show work – what is it about the medium that appeals to you? How does it compare to appearing as one of a cast? 
BM: I have had the best time writing and performing solo pieces, but they’re never really solo pieces. As mentioned, Simon Oakes has always composed amazing scores, Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting always creates atmospheres, and working with directors like Erica Whyman and Hamish McColl has elevated the pieces to a level I would never touch otherwise.

Solo storytelling, especially when using limited props and stage set, somehow feels like radio, where the images the performer is suggesting are created in the mind of the audience – we can go anywhere, see anything through a performer’s language and movement so long as we’re willing to offer our imagination in our seats.

When I teach this, I talk about the concept of closure, and the storytelling trance we are happy to go into and how it feels like a child listening to a bedtime story. 

But acting is reacting, and I guess when you’re on your own on stage, there are limitations. I’ve loved being in proper plays too – I was in the West End in 2000 in ‘A Busy Day’, and in the first production of Anya Reiss’s version of ‘The Seagull’, and it’s been a real treat to observe and learn from other actors in rehearsals and performances. It’s wonderful to be part of a team, to collaborate and develop, and I’ve been very lucky.

CM: I’ve seen you popping up on TV in recent years – how do those jobs compare to live performances? Which is better? 
BM: Yes, I’ve been so lucky to have very small parts in shows like ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, ‘A Very English Scandal’ and ‘The IT Crowd’. Again, it’s a joy to be part of a team and share scenes with amazing colleagues and see the brilliant work that goes on behind the scenes with costume, make-up, lighting etc.

On ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, for example, we shot in Berlin and I spent a terrific afternoon chatting with Bill Camp who volunteers for theatre-based youth engagement charity 52nd Street Project in New York, comparing it to Scene And Heard, its London equivalent. 

The working tempo can be different on different projects, but it’s always fascinating to sense the mood and style on a set, and work with the director to get what they want.

I love film productions just the same as doing a live performance; a live performance happens just the once with that audience in that time in that space, but a screen performance can resonate longer. It’s months, sometimes years, between filming a scene and its release.

CM: How did you get into this to begin with? What made you pursue a career in the arts? Did you always want to perform? 
BM: I did amateur dramatics in my home town of Whitstable as a teenager, and a couple of school plays, but it was when I got to university and met people with a similar sense of humour and theatricality that I was really put on the path – people like Al Murray, Lee And Herring and Sally Phillips.

I did a couple of Fringes as a student in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until my first solo show in 1993 that I grasped what I wanted to be doing – mixing up comedy and weird stories about a universe just along from ours.

A big influence was Ken Campbell and his Furtive Nudist shows, as well as writers like Michael Moorcock, Mark Leyner and JG Ballard, and the comic 2000AD.

I have always written too, and for a while in the 1990s I worked at The Guardian in their magazine unit, and I could have taken that path instead, but there is nothing like the feeling at the end of the performance, whether it’s gone well or badly, when you’re there in the room that the moment of work and release happens.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
BM: Here are three. One was a Saturday morning show of ‘Coelacanth’ at the 2009 Latitude Festival. The band played the score live, and we were on a stage in a clearing in the woods. When we started there were a few people at the front, but over the course of the hour, folk entering the site were attracted by the beautiful music and the sense of discovery and by the end there were hundreds. Very special. 

Another highlight was working with some incredible actors on ‘Casanova’, and the whole experience of filming in Venice, going straight there after the 2004 Fringe. And especially making Ken Stott laugh in a scene we had together, when I was trying to be very serious and clearly failing horribly. 

And one more: at the 2013 Fringe, when I had just performed a show of ‘Each Of Us’, a young person came up to me and said they had chosen to study literature at university after reading ‘More Trees To Climb’, which is my published collection of three plays.

CM: What aims or ambitions do you have for the future?
BM: Aims include taking ‘BookTalkBookTalkBook’ to more literary venues and festivals where I hope it will surprise and delight the book crowd. And I guess, just continuing to be creative and inspired by the brilliant shows here at the Fringe this year and for many years to come.

I’d love for ‘Who Here’s Lost?’ to tour a bit, and soon I’ll start working on a new piece. There’s always a moment in the last week of the Fringe where people tell each other they have a great idea for next year’s show and I can’t wait for those conversations.

CM: A lot of performers have something of a love/hate relationship with the Edinburgh Fringe. What’s yours like? What do you love about it? Is there anything you hate? 
BM: All the emotions are here. There are days when you think you have the best show ever created by a human being and all you have to do is perform it and await the plaudits, the parades in your honour, the renaming of the festival after you and your show, the firework displays.

And then there are days when you can’t believe your work is deserving of anybody’s eyes, ears, time and attention and maybe there is a cave in the Old Town where you can seal yourself up so no one has to ever encounter you or your work again. 

But of course, because of the ups and downs, you know you’re on a journey; only the unmovable stay still and art is nothing if it doesn’t involve movement. If you believe good reviews you have to believe bad reviews, and I think the best reviewer, the one you really need to trust, is yourself.

CM: What are you looking forward to about being back at the Festival? What will you be doing when not performing? 
BM: Well, as we speak it’s the first Saturday of the Fringe, so I’ve been in town for nearly a week and I’m slowly ticking off all the highlights.

I’ve had a Tempting Tattie potato and a Piemaker pie, so my Edinburgh diet is in a good state. I’ve done my daily hours of Royal Mile flyering in most of the weather and met some lovely people who’ve told me about their shows.

I’ve seen shows and done shows and booked in for shows, and although they say there are 24 hours in a Fringe day, somehow I’m trying to stretch a few more in there.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
BM: I’ve been volunteering for an amazing charity, the aforementioned Scene And Heard, since 1999 and I’ll be back on a project with them in September.

They match children from the Somers Town district of London with theatre professionals, who mentor them to create the most brilliant plays using animals and objects as the characters.

Professional actors then play the parts – I’ve been Siri, a banana, a briefcase and a platypus – and the young playwright gets the greatest round of applause.

The shows are funny, romantic, surreal and immediate, and they are presented with real truth and commitment to the words and voices of the children. It’s theatre unlike you’ll see anywhere else and a project that makes the world demonstrably better.

Ben Moor appeared in three shows at Edinburgh Festival 2022, all at Pleasance Courtyard: ‘Who Here’s Lost’; ‘Ben Moor: Pronoun Trouble’; and ‘Ben Moor and Joanna Neary: BookTalkBookTalkBook’. 

LINKS: twitter.com/benmoor | linktr.ee/benmoor 

Photo: Andy Lane