It is a bittersweet moment in any girl’s life when they find out that The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft isn’t their real father. The pain is all the more acute if you’re a young, working-class, Northerner like Sophie Willan. In her second year at the Fringe, Willan weaves together the personal and the political in a show that is full of warmth, and gutsy in the extreme.
For anyone clued in to the debates around the politics or identity, this show is a must see.
The show opens with the Bolton native recounting her recent professional success. Rather than taking us through a ‘This Is What I Got Up To In The Last Twelve Months’ tale, like so many other comics in Edinburgh in August, Willan looks at her career path through the prism of identity. Being a Northern, working-class woman is very much in vogue according to the PR types that oversee so many careers in comedy. However, for the various promoters and agents that Willan deals with, her background is her USP rather than a part of who she is. The whole show is an attempt by Willan to wrestle back some control over these labels, to introduce some nuance, and, as she sees it, to put some personality back into identity politics.
This all sounds a bit TEDtalk-ish on paper but the reality is the opposite. Willan is an upbeat stage presence, even in the more challenging sections toward the end – there’s a great knockabout feel to the opening exchanges and her interactions with the front rows create a genuinely welcoming atmosphere. She knowingly relies on that George Formby-type caricature of the cheeky Northerner. She’s clearly practiced in it, telling how she used the excuse of not being able to find anywhere to serve gravy on her chips for being late to school when she briefly lived in Bristol in her youth. Her assuredness as a performer allows her to add a bit of bite to the more conventional observational exchanges too – the quality of poems written in response to terrorist atrocities draws her ire when discussing the rest of the UK’s (in this context, read southeast England’s) attitudes to the North.
Around the two-thirds of the way in, things get markedly more political in tone. Discussion of the damage done to Northern working-classes by Thatcher’s governments and post-2008 austerity sees the gags-per-minute ratio drop a bit, along with some of the momentum. Though it’s clearly relevant to the overall story Willan is trying to tell, it does feel like the more overtly political material doesn’t quite serve the purpose it’s meant to. It’s one thing for Willan to make the case that branding people with this and that label can have a detrimental effect, but for her to then turn around and do the same to other groups (Tories, Brexit voters, baby boomers, etc.) seems a bit heavy-handed.
In any case, it’s when the personal is injected back into the political again that the gig becomes profoundly more resonant. Without giving away too much, the closing sections are intensely revealing on a personal level for Willan. Alongside this, she also leaves us with a moral question to which, at present anyway, society doesn’t seem capable of answering. For anyone clued in to the debates around the politics or identity, this show is a must see.