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Martha McBrier: Back at the Fringe with stories to share

By | Published on Tuesday 9 August 2016

Martha McBrier

Martha McBrier enjoyed much acclaim for her stand-up shows at the Fringe over a decade ago, but then she stepped back from performing for a number of years. But she has reappeared on the Edinburgh stage more recently, initially with her self-penned children’s shows, and last year with ‘Pigeon Puncher’, in which her comedy was combined with the art of storytelling.
She returns this month to the Free Festival with ‘Japanese Boy’, recalling the time she took a group of mental health patients to compete in a pool tournament. We caught up with Martha to discuss her comedy, her return and this year’s story and the themes it explores.

CC: We first saw you at the Fringe like a decade ago, but then you took a break for a few years before returning with the children’s shows, and then ‘Pigeon Puncher’. What made you come back to the Fringe?
MM: I stopped performing when my hearing worsened. I couldn’t banter because I couldn’t hear the responses. You can’t be a good improviser if you have to keep asking the audience to repeat themselves. People thought I was playing for time, or just rubbish. It was a huge thing in my life to lose my hearing and I wasn’t prepared for the impact. It pervaded every area of my life and very gradually, I lost confidence. I had other parts of my condition to deal with as well. It’s taken a long time to come to terms with it all and I still get upset if I can’t hear. But I love the Edinburgh Fringe. There’s nothing like it. And I have never performed much out-with the Fringe; people have always assumed that I was more involved in the comedy industry than I actually was.

CC: You said that ‘Pigeon Puncher’ was in part the result of discovering the art of storytelling. How are the new story-based shows different to the old stand-up shows?
MM: I love a good narrative arc, me. All of the comedians I admire are great story tellers; Billy Connolly, Mike Birbiglia, Daniel Kitson, Matt Price, Sarah Kendall. You don’t need to interact whilst telling stories. I’d never done that before; I’d never written a script, or even particularly written a set. So this was new, but I discovered I really like it. People do love a good story. My partner – yarntastic, loveable Cornish giant, Matt Price – has been a huge inspiration and has encouraged me. He has always been a storyteller and now it seems to be fashionable.

CC: Tell us about the story you’re sharing in ‘Japanese Boy’.
MM: I worked in mental health for six years in the 1980s and started a pool league with a group of schizophrenics. It’s definitely a tale of the triumph of the underdog. I’ve wanted to tell this story for a while – it’s funny and sad – though I originally thought it would be a play. I can still remember vividly the patients, the hospital smells and the staff. I think it was the best job I ever had; I learned so much and had the most amazing interactions with people.

CC: It feels that recently people have become slightly more open in discussing mental health. Would you agree?
MM: There’s still far too much stigma. So anytime anyone talks about any health issue, particularly mental health, it really makes a difference. And there needs to be more emphasis on mental well-being. I believe it should be a priority and there needs to be more services. Actually, really, everyone can relate to mental ill-health, even if it’s grief, or anxiety, or low self-esteem, and we all know what it’s like to lose the plot. But it’s important that people get away from the ‘Beautiful Mind’ view of mental health. I look at the West of Scotland, working class reality. Because any health issue is easier when you have money. That’s a sociological fact. You’re welcome.

CC: Is it a challenge getting the balance right when doing a comedy show about mental health?
MM: Yes, because you don’t want to appear as though you’re making fun of someone’s torment. As I say, I’ve wanted to tell this story for a while. I wanted to talk about the issues in mental health that you hear less about, particularly schizophrenia. It’s told with love and respect. When patients were stable they could talk to me about their symptoms and even laugh about it. Humour can work everywhere. And I have to say, comedians are the craziest group of people I have ever encountered.

CC: You mentioned the banter in your old shows. You use to be well known for riffing with the audience and sometimes improvising pretty much the entire show. I assume the new shows are more tightly scripted. Do you still interact with the audience?
MM: The show is structured, yes; it has a beginning, a middle and an end. To be honest, I have been doing a wee smidgen of interacting and responding to things that happen. I can’t help it. It’s important to me to make a connection with people; that probably stems from my work background. Though you can riff all you want to, but not all audiences want to be riffees.

CC: You’ve obviously had a very interesting life outside of comedy and performing. Do you think that helps when writing comedy? Should young comedians be trying to get some proper life experiences to make them better comics?
MM: Well, I think everybody’s life is interesting. I am very deep today! I think if you have a talent for the comedic, you can make any experience funny, however mundane, especially if you’re a keen observer of human behaviour. So while most comedians do get better with age, there’s comedy to be found in the smallest things. Because people are ridiculous, especially when they’re trying not to be. In the 1970s Billy Connolly had a hilarious routine about having an itchy bahookie, a beautiful Scottish word for bottom. And writer/performers like Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne could make ordering soup and sitting on a sofa funny. How awful to have lost both of them.

CC: I mentioned the children’s shows you did. How does performing for children compare to performing for older audiences?
MM: Doing children’s shows had been a long-standing ambition. I have performed two of four shows I’ve written in the ‘Very Scariesome’ series – ‘The Very Scariesome Lollipop Lady’ and ‘The Very Scariesome Tooth Fairy’ – which I am planning to turn into books. I’m interested in what makes children afraid. Children are as varied as adults, but I think more honest. In one show I asked who has a dog. One wee boy’s hand shot up. He then told the crowd he had a dog, but it had to be kept at his grans till his dad got out of jail. You seldom get freedom of expression like that from adults! I said, “your gran sounds great”. He was pleased. Kids believe their life is perfectly okay until someone tells them different.

CC: You performed at various Edinburgh Fringe venues back in the day. What drew you to the Free Festival?
MM: It’s a brilliant idea and without doubt, offers opportunities to performers without them losing thousands of pounds. The public seem keen on it too. It has allowed someone like me with no agent and no PR to do a show. That was the original ethos of the Fringe. And with the calibre of performers doing free shows – the magnificent Brendon Burns, no less! – audiences can see something that’s every bit as good as they’ll see in a paid-ticket venue. So there.

CC: Are there any previously untold stories from your life that you reckon could be the inspiration for future Edinburgh shows?
MM: That would (literally) be telling…

‘Japanese Boy’ was performed at Laughing Horse at Finnegan’s Wake at Edinburgh Festival 2016.

Photo by Steve Ullathorne