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Helen Duff: Just go with her

By | Published on Saturday 30 July 2016

Come With Me

You may be aware of Helen Duff’s previous work at the Festival, because she’s garnered quite a lot of acclaim with past shows ‘Smasher’ and ‘Vanity Bites Back’, the latter achieving a Fringe First nomination.
Her new set will no doubt be of the same high quality as previous outings, so I thought it was about time we had a good chat, even though the subject matter of the new show made me blush a bit – because I’m easily embarrassed, see. Good thing she isn’t.

CM: You’re an actress and a comedian, but how would you describe your show? What sort of genre or sub-genre does it fit into?
HD: Clowning with a capital K. I have a structure and a script, but I lurch off-piste, into many an audience’s member’s lap, as soon as the opportunity arises. Or even if it doesn’t. No rising required. Especially if there’s lap-landing involved. Do many Laplanders read ThreeWeeks? I’m thinking my style might be right up their street! I would have said up their laps, but I’m sure they get really sick of lap-schtick.

CM: What happens in the show? What’s the concept?
HD: I dress as a sperm in my quest to have my first ever orgasm. The audience try their best to help me. I thought post-Brexit it would be good to build up a real community vibe. It’s about my quest for ultimate pleasure and all the pressures and pitfalls involved in trying to come like a train. Or Hillary Clinton. Or the latest fully empowered, 21st Century Lady Boss, who I might be beating myself up for not beating one out like that morning.

CM: What made you decide to attack this particular – and some might say rather personal – topic?
HD: When talking about something scares me, I try to find the tipping point between terror and terrific release, then play around that edge. So far it seems to be paying off. In a comedic sense that is. I still haven’t had my massive “who let Martin Clunes in here?!” moment.

CM: The show’s described as your “quest to achieve ultimate pleasure”. Is it really about you or is it about everyone?
HD: It is all about me. It is 100% honest. Why would I make this stuff up? Weirdly, the honesty has made it all the more universal. Audiences can smell a political fembot faking up real life stories a mile off. I did an early scratch showing at Derby Theatre and right from the beginning, men and women were sharing their experiences with me in the pub afterwards, totally unprompted. It’s been a beautifully eye-opening show.

CM: Interesting – have other people’s experiences informed the show?
HD: Yes. I posted an anonymous survey online asking seven questions all about sex. The answers were amazing, especially to the question ‘what does it feel like to orgasm?’. The climax of the show recreates some of the best descriptions – but definitely not in the way you’d expect. There are eight mangoes and a unicorn ride involved for a start.

CM: Are you unflinching in your approach? Do you think the show has the potential to make your audience feel uncomfortable?
HD: There’d be a risk involved if I felt ashamed of what I was saying. It’s uncomfortable if someone’s apologising on stage, or asking for approval. I know that my material is funny first, absurd second – did I mention my mum made my vagina costume? She and my step dad have seen the show twice, and loved it – and totally truthful. If people come in feeling uncomfortable, I hope they leave feeling a lot more free.

CM: Do you ever feel uncomfortable delivering this material, or are you un-embarrass-able?
HD: With clowning, that’s all part of the fun. You don’t have to cover up your failures or fears because they’re an essential part of the act. It’s liberating for everyone when a performer takes ownership of what might otherwise undermine their confidence on and off stage.

CM: This is the first time you’ve appeared at a ‘paying’ Fringe venue, isn’t it? What made you decide to make the move from doing a free show?
HD: Playing at Pleasance is a dream come true comedy-wise. I’m excited for my audience to come into ‘Come With Me’ feeling relatively safe and comedy savvy, and then find themselves being pleasured at the Pleasance in a way they never expected.

CM: What keeps you coming back to the Edinburgh Fringe? What’s your favourite thing about it? Is there anything you don’t like about it?
HD: First, I’m a sucker for punishment. I’m seeing someone really lovely for a change and I cannot comprehend what’s happening. So Edinburgh will put me back in my place. Second, Arthur’s Seat before you wake up, Portobello before you go to sleep. And third, it’s much harder to get free tasters more than once a day when the fudge people recognise your face.

CM: You are now fairly Fringe-seasoned. What advice would you give to others who are taking a first step?
HD: Never flyer on the Royal Mile. People can’t see you in the sea of faces covered with blood / ejaculate / carrot cake and it wastes valuable fudge tasting time.

CM: You’re a trained actress, of course. Do you prefer your solo comedy shows to more straight acting?
HD: My solo stuff allows me a freedom to cross genres, talk to audiences, kick through taboos, tackle stuff personally and do all the best lines from ‘Pretty Woman’ while pretending to be Jabba The Hut in a jump suit. When you put your trust in comedy audiences, they’re willing to go on wild, hour long, wonder chases with you.

CM: What are your ambitions for the show beyond the Fringe?
HD: Right now I’m really just focusing on trying to have my first orgasm during the four week run at Pleasance. Some people think it might sabotage the show. Honestly, if that is the trade off, I’m prepared for the show to take the hit.

CM: What other shows will you be seeing at the Festival? Do you have lots of tickets booked?
HD: Booked? Do you know how stressful just making an anatomically inaccurate ejaculate outfit has been? I’m looking forward to catching my clown mates Tessa Waters, John-Luke Roberts and The Establishment in action, plus straighter stand-up from David Quirk and Bridget Christie – who, actually, I just booked for while thinking of my answer for this question! You got me FOMO’d by my own interview, ThreeWeeks! It’s like we’re swimming in some kind of mad hypno FOMO Jacuzzi! And I’ve not even got my sperm outfit on!

Helen Duff’s ‘Come With Me’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2016.

Photo: Sophie Ansell