As feisty and outspoken as ever, Ruby Wax is on a mission to smash the stigma of mental illness, ably assisted by her best friend Judith Owen.
It’s four years and one month since Ruby Wax last plunged into the dark depths of the manic depression that has plagued her since childhood. “It’s cyclical,” she says, spooning honey into her tea.
“So I usually get an attack every five years,” continues the erstwhile fearsomely mouthy and audacious TV interviewer of Pamela Anderson and O J Simpson among many others, and the co-author, with Jennifer Saunders, of Absolutely Fabulous.
Does that mean the ballsy broad, who made a career out of shooting from the lip, is living in fear that the black cloud will descend upon her again in 11 months’ time?
“No, I am not, although I’ll always have this disease – it’ll always come back to bite me in the ass,” replies the diminutive but indecently youthful-looking fifty-something (she refuses to disclose her age). She’s on low-dose medication and can now recognise the triggers that might make her “crash”.
Nonetheless, she’s created a new Wax work, a show called Losing It, a two-hander, about mental illness, which she would like to go on playing for the rest of her days.
After two sold-out runs at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, she and her best friend, singer-songwriter Judith Owen (43), also a lifelong sufferer
from clinical depression, bring the show to the Edinburgh Fringe, before transferring to the West End. “Then,” says Wax, arms akimbo, “the world-tour.”
And world domination? “Sure!’ she exclaims, adding that she wants to break down the taboos surrounding mental illness. “It used to be the C-word, cancer, that we were afraid of talking about. Now it’s the M-word, mental illness. We have to get rid of the stigma.”
The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama trained actress has already done a successful nationwide tour, with Owen, taking the show to psychiatric wards, performing for fellow sufferers from the disease and their families. Bizarrely, they have also been a hit with hen nights in the north of England.
In Edinburgh, they’ll stage after-show forums so that audience members can discuss their personal battles with depression with mental health professionals. “The best minds in the business will be there,” promises Wax. When they’ve done this previously, both women have been deeply moved by people’s responses.
“We did one show where a man spoke about his depression – his wife who was with him had had no idea. He’d never discussed it with her,” says Owen. “It’s utterly amazing the way people open up.”
So is this theatre as therapy or confessional cabaret? ”It’s neither,” says Wax. “We just want people to know that this is an illness that anybody can get. The show starts off very funny, then it becomes informative in a funny way about how the brain works.”
All of her life, Chicago-born Wax had known there was something wrong, but refused to acknowledge that she had a problem, despite having been diagnosed as depressive when she was only 10-years-old. But then her childhood was miserable anyway, as she recounts in her memoir, How Do You Want Me? (There was a lot of slapping and screaming in the family home.) “For years, I really feared people seeing how depressed I was and, therefore, how ugly I was,” she confesses.
She and her third husband, TV producer Ed Bye, have three children, Max, Maddie and Marina. After the birth of her youngest child, Wax found herself drowing in “a tsunami of depression.”
She checked into the Priory for six weeks and has been a private patient there four times. Losing It was first performed at the clinic. “If depressives laugh, you’ve got a hit,” she says, explaining that, in 2006, she went back to college, gaining a postgraduate diploma in psychotherapy and counselling. Currently, she’s studying for a Master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford University. Her professors are encouraging her to use Losing It as part of her academic research.
Both she and Owen find the show cathartic. “No one loves me as much as she does,” says Wax of Owen, who divides her time between London and LA with her husband, Spinal Tap and Simpsons’ star Harry Shearer.
Although she and Wax had known each other for years, they never hit it off. Owen thought Wax bolshy and bossy; Wax thought she was “an ice-maiden.” Then they bonded on a plane journey, when Owen held Wax’s hand through a scarily bumpy landing and they began sharing stories of their mental traumas.
Wax said to Owen, “You’re a good person. Not every woman would be as nice as you were to someone who’s slept with a person’s husband.”
“I knew Harry and Ruby had known each other in the Eighties but I never knew they’d had sex,” confides Owen. “But, hey, what the hell! She got him in his prime; I’ve got him in his wealth.”
Ruby Wax: Losing It, Udderbelly,
5-29 August (not 15), 4.10pm
From £10, Tel: 0844 545 8252