Syndicated Interview with Beth Vyse
By Brian Donaldson
For someone who is known within the comedy community for her high-tempo and wilfully daft live performances, Beth Vyse has taken quite a leftfield turning with her touring show As Funny As Cancer. While still containing elements of freewheeling mirth (audiences are greeted into the room by ‘Dolly Parton’ in a dream-like sequence), Beth delivers a very personal show about her own cancer diagnosis and subsequent recovery that simultaneously hits the funny bone and strikes at the emotions.
“A lot of people will get different things from it,” she says. “When I was doing the show recently in Edinburgh, a woman came to me afterwards who had been diagnosed a week before, and said she just wanted to see something that was talking about cancer in a positive way and laughing at it. Some people have big emotional cries in it and that’s more about them than me. And that’s what I’d prefer, that it shouldn’t all be about me.”
Diagnosed at the age of 28, Beth was given the five-year all-clear in 2014. Having kept her illness a secret from all but her closest family and friends, she wondered whether the moment was right to create a piece about her experiences which were a mixture of terrifying and, to use her own word, “hysterical”. A somewhat negative reaction from her agent at the time made her think again, but she knew there was a funny story to be told within the darkness. One of Beth’s early concerns was on how exactly to perform it.
“I first did a half-hour preview of it in February 2015 where I sat on a stool. Normally I’m bombastic and doing weird things but I was there just sitting on my hands because I thought my whole body would shake. I told my story and I knew it was good but I had to go away and work on what would make it funny. So the next time I told it I used props, and the time after that I got the audience involved. I was effectively working on the show in front of a live audience the whole time in order to work out both what this thing was and also to work out what I could and couldn’t make an audience do. You don’t know how much people will want to be involved in this kind of story; you don’t know who’s been through it and how hard it is for them.”
Once she discovered exactly how to put the show together, she worked on the roles that could be given to audience members, the main parts being the doctor who informed her of the diagnosis, and her partner during that difficult period. He just so happened to be called Michael Jackson which gives Beth plenty comedic scope to play with that coincidence. Her parents also make an appearance on screens behind her, their personalities coming alive as Beth fleshes out their own stories.
“They’ve both seen the show on a few occasions and they end up in tears every time. They sit at the back, in a corner, but they’re getting better with it now. They quite like being famous. I wouldn’t draw attention to them being in, but if a lot of the audience notice them there, then I might mention it. But again that would then make it about them and the audience might not get what they should be getting from the show, so I always try to avoid it.”
She’s currently in talks to make a radio version of As Funny As Cancer, but Beth is viewing the last show on this tour as probably the final time she’ll perform it live. “I’m doing the tour during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and that should get more people talking about it. I don’t think people see cancer as the big end now. When I had it, I never made any contact with anyone who had cancer; and you can pretend that it doesn’t affect you but it really does. And this show was a way of dealing with all that. At the beginning it acted as a kind of therapy, though not anymore.”
A classically trained actress, Beth had two spells at the Royal Shakespeare Company, firstly at the age of 22 when she performed understudy work, and then later when she was playing leads. “I was at both ends of the spectrum there. In Shakespeare you are carrying this big emotional thing where you have to get all those words out and get it over to the audience. With my show I have to juggle things so I have to make people laugh and move them, and at the same time you have to keep the story going while staying aware of everyone in the room.”
Once Beth puts As Funny As Cancer behind her, she will move on to other acting and directing roles before considering her next comedy show. “I try not to follow trends or follow what other people are doing or what’s going on, I just work out for myself what I think is funny.”
She may well find more gainful employment for her character Olive Hands, a larger-than-life spoof of daytime TV presenters who also graced the most recent Edinburgh Fringe. “I like Olive and there may be more life in the old dog yet, but certainly the next show I do will be firmly in the stupid vein which is what I really love doing. But this show has taken me further in different ways and really resonated with the audience and made it fun to be so open. It’s a lovely show to do and if you can manage to move people and uplift them and make them laugh, then I think that’s a really powerful thing.”
You can see As Funny As Cancer at The Garage on 13 October, 8PM. For more information and bookings click here.