Fabulous and foul-mouthed as ever, comedy legend and mental health activist
Ruby Wax is back with another hilarious hard hitter
Ruby Wax is frazzled. To be specific, she’s hungover.
“I stayed up late last night,” the fast-talking, fast-thinking comedian, author and campaigner says by way of apologising for her occasional jumbling of words. It’s the morning after the General Election the night before. Now, with the dawn of a hung parliament, she admits to bafflement as to the next political steps.
“I don’t know what’s happening – I’m an American!” she splutters.
Wax is also Frazzled. The 64-year-old’s new stage show is based on her bestselling 2016 book A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. When we speak she’s one week into the show’s four-week run in London’s West End, after which she brings it to Edinburgh for a hot-ticket three-night stand.
“This is the most fun I’ve had doing a show. It’s kind of reckless,” she says – or, she might have said “breathless”. Either adjective, it seems, would work. “It’s not so much a play. It’s not stand-up ’cause I’m sitting in a chair, but I feel like I’m connecting with the audience. Then in the second half they get to talk, which is hilarious and always interesting. They want to just speak their minds.”
What kind of things are her audiences saying?
“Well, you know, the world is kinda frazzled, so people just want to be able to heard. So whether it’s their kids, or they are kids, they’re pulling their hair out. Or you’re at work and there’s too much pressure. Everybody has a question to do with how they’re supposed to live their lives and how they keep up with the next guy. And everybody wants to get it off their chest. So they start to form a community.”
In that regard, the mother-of-three is putting her activism where her mouth is. In partnership with Marks & Spencer, this woman with an OBE for Services to Mental Health has launched Frazzled Cafés. M&S are periodically shutting down some of their in-store cafés so Frazzled fans can meet in small groups, with the aid of a facilitator, “and continue the conversation they started in the theatre”. This, she clarifies, is “nothing to do with mental illness, it’s just the state we’re in, the state of the nation, your nation,” she rattles.
Wax’s personal-but-public journey towards better mental health – for herself, for us all – is ongoing, never-less-than-candid and invariably, hilarious. In 2008 her Edinburgh show Headroom, performed after she’d completed a degree in psychology at University of California, Berkeley, discussed her breakdown. In 2010 she was back in Edinburgh with Losing It, in which she opened up about her stay at The Priory after the birth of her third child. She followed that with a bestseller book, Sane New World (2013), which begat a show of the same name. The same year she graduated from Oxford with a master’s degree in mindfulness. No one could ever accuse of the energetic Chicago native of letting illness get the better of her.
Explaining the beginnings of Losing It, she’s typically spade’s-a-spade.
“Comic Relief put up posters of me all over the tube in London. It said ‘one in four people have mental illness and one in five people have dandruff – I have both.’ And I was outed!” she hoots. “I didn’t give them permission to do that. So I decided I’d write a show and pretend it was my publicity poster and I’d done it on purpose.
“I’ve done two shows since then, but you can’t keep harping on about the same thing. You can’t use your disability forever! So Frazzled is different.”
On British TV in the Nineties, Wax was all front: the brash American chatshow host and actress, the cameo performer on Absolutely Fabulous (on which she was a script editor). But on stage she needed to be different.
“I was never a stand-up – ‘a funny thing happened to my cat, and aren’t I fat?’ There are geniuses who can do that. I like to follow a narrative, and there’s a point to it. And then you want the audience to go: ‘I never thought of that.’ So it’s good to have the academic background to use as raw material. It’s like AbFab – you can’t do better editing than when you have great material to work with.”
Meanwhile, back in the mists of time, in 1987 – “Oh my f*cking god! Was it 30 f*cking years ago?” – Ruby Wax made her Edinburgh debut. She starred alongside John Sessions in Wax Acts, directed by Alan Rickman, who she’d met when both were members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Wax had come to the UK to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama but never considered herself a good actress – a point rammed home at the RSC, “where they all, one by one, told me that I was awful. But at least I met Alan. He told me to start writing comedy. He said: ‘You should write the way you talk.’ Otherwise I never would have thought about it.”
Her memories of 1987 (“30 years! That’s upsetting!”) feature her and Rickman “running around Edinburgh with Blu-Tack, sticking up posters, ’cause nobody publicised the show. And with a horrible picture of me – again – looking like a Puerto Rican person, ’cause they used the negative of the photo. And gluing those on to trees, and hoping that somebody would come see the show.”
The Wax Acts plot, such as it was, involved Sessions being locked in a dressing room. The then unknown Wax, unable to get into the dressing room, ended up sitting on a chair and applying her make-up, “and that became the show,” she recalls. “But somebody didn’t understand that it was my show and took the chair away. Eventually Alan had to rip the chair out of their hands and say, it’s her show!’
“It was a tiny theatre, three people came, but the show was fucking great!”
Thirty years on (“Can you imagine me hearing that?” she wails) Wax is back on the Fringe, still the star of the show – but now making the audience the stars, too. She’s also busy finishing another book. Wax is writing How To Be Human with a monk and neuroscientist. It sounds like a joke set-up. But remember: this big-thinking entertainer was never a stand-up.
That said, “I think laughter is the greatest foreplay, for reflecting back on things that are very dark. And with comedy, the point is to be dark. To point out that’s not about ‘have a nice day’. And when people laugh they’re all together on the same page. To me talking is half the cure.”
For her brilliant ability to talk, Ruby Wax isn’t promising any cure with Frazzled.
“I want people to feel like they ate really great food, that they’ve had their brain fed, and to wet the floor with laughter.”
Sounds like a great night out, for head and belly, if not for other body parts.
Ruby Wax: Frazzled is also touring Nationwide this Autumn. For further details visit http://www.rubywax.net/tour.html
WORDS: Craig McLean
PHOTO: Steve Ullathorne
WHERE & WHEN
Ruby Wax: Frazzled, Underbelly George Square, 10-12 August, 5.10pm
From £20 Tel: 0131 226 0000